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WorldWide Telescope peers into Big Dipper

Microsoft Research demonstrates a new virtual telescope that lets people pan and zoom across the night sky.

A view of space from Microsoft's Worldwide Telescope

Microsoft on Wednesday gave TED conference-goers--an audience typically filled with stars like Goldie Hawn or Forest Whitaker--a close-up of real celestial bodies with its new virtual telescope.

Microsoft demonstrated long-awaited software called WorldWide Telescope to an audience at the exclusive Technology Entertainment and Design conference in Monterey, Calif., a four-day confab that started Wednesday. It's unclear whether the demo of the astronomy technology made anyone in the audience cry like former Microsoft evangelist Robert Scoble, but the images (shown above) were certainly stellar.

WorldWide Telescope, similar to the sky feature in Google Earth but much more expansive, is a virtual map of space that features tens of millions of digital images from sources like the Hubble telescope and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a project championed by missing Microsoft researcher Jim Gray (to whom Microsoft dedicated the WorldWide Telescope on Wednesday). From the desktop, the technology lets people pan and zoom across the night sky, zeroing in on the Big Dipper, Mars, or the first galaxies to emerge after the Big Bang. It also lets people call up related data, stories, or context about what they're seeing from sources online.

Harvard University astrophysicist Roy Gould, who demonstrated the telescope with Microsoft principal researcher Curtis Wong, said that that the technology holds promise for research and for humanity.

"The WorldWide Telescope takes the best images from the greatest telescopes on Earth...and in space...and assembles them into a seamless, holistic view of the universe," Gould, of the Harvard Center for Astrophysics, said at the conference.

"This new resource will change the way we do astronomy...the way we teach astronomy....and, most importantly, I think it's going to change the way we see ourselves in the universe."

Microsoft also unveiled a promotional site for the telescope project Wednesday, but the free technology won't be live until sometime this spring. Without the tears, several academics talk up the telescope in video on the site. Here is a sampling of the awe-struck sentiment: "It's the universe that you yourself can voyage through." "It's a magic carpet." "It's an example of where science and science education is going." "My hope is to have it on every kid's desktop."