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Google Earth gazes into deep space

New mode shows moons, planets, stars and galaxies as seen from the Hubble Space Telescope and Earth's leading observatories. Images: Google Earth beams you into space

Truly out-of-this-world views have been added to Google Earth's interactive map.

Sky, as the new mode is called, offers views of the universe, including high-resolution photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope and background information on discoveries and constellations.

The elaborate interactive map of the universe was created by a team of Google engineers who combined images from CalTech's Palomar Observatory, the Space Telescope Science Institute, the Digital Sky Survey Consortium, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the United Kingdom Astronomy Technology Center and the Anglo-Australian Observatory.

Sky covers a vast amount of territory--100 millions stars and 200 million galaxies, Google said Wednesday. But people may have a little difficulty finding the feature at first.

While Google does partner with NASA, the NASA layer icons that were recently added to Google Earth are not an indication of being in Sky mode. Those icons, which appear throughout the Earth map, are various astrophotography and satellite images of the Earth itself as seen from space by various NASA satellites and spacecraft since the 1960s.

To navigate to Sky, one must first download the latest version of Google Earth. A tiny round black icon with a planet resembling Saturn will then appear in the toolbar. Click on this to switch from Google Earth's Earth mode to Sky mode. Alternatively, one can also choose "Switch to Sky" from Google Earth's View menu.

As with the globe in Earth mode, the sky comes dramatically whirling by as one enters Sky mode. Of course, instead of information on countries, cities and historic sites, Sky offers data on moons, planets, stars and galaxies.

Clicking on a red dot within the constellation Sagittarius, for example, leads to information on Globular Cluster M55, aka Messier 55, a cluster within the constellation that was "discovered by Nicolas Louis de Lacaille in 1761 and catalogued by Charles Messier in 1778," according to its write-up, which includes links to the NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database and Simbad, an astronomical database maintained by several leading national and international space agencies.

As with Earth mode, Sky offers pop-up information and photographs on specific places, as well as different layers.

The constellation layer offers background information and star-connecting outlines of famous constellations. Backyard Astronomy offers views as amateur stargazers might see it from their own backyard.

For the more adventuresome armchair space explorers, the Users Guide to Galaxies will take one on a tour beyond the immediate planetary system to places in the Milky Way.

Other features include educational information on the phases of the Earth's moon and the life of a star, in addition to about 120 high-resolution images from the Hubble Space Telescope.

There are, however, a few quirks in the program. For example, the Google Earth pushpin explaining the background of the Eiffel Tower that would normally appear over Paris, France, is visible as one looks at Ursa Major, aka the Big Dipper.