Have you experienced the WorldWide Telescope? It’s a powerful new tool from Microsoft Research for exploring the heavens. Arguably, its primary use is for academia and professional astronomers; however, it also offers some eye candy that the rest of us won’t want to miss out on.

The WorldWide Telescope is based on work that was pioneered by Microsoft Senior Researcher Jim Gray, who was lost at sea last year. It’s heartening to see that his work lives on. The WorldWide Telescope is a rich and interactive visualization environment that acts as a virtual telescope. Data and images from both ground-based and space-based telescopes are integrated in a relatively seamless manner, letting users explore celestial bodies on their own or participate in "guided tours."

“It is stunning,” says Alex Szalay, an alumni centennial professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at The Johns Hopkins University. “It is beautiful. It is just so smooth. Everything is so crisp and clean and simple and easy. It’s incredibly well-coded, and the science of it is also correct, down to the minute details.”

Science Magazine published a paper by Gray and Szalay titled "The World-Wide Telescope" that postulated that all astronomy data and literature would soon be available online, making the concept of a virtual observatory viable. Their vision was realized in the public beta launch of the WorldWide Telescope on May 12. The original Science Magazine paper is available at http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/sci;293/5537/2037?maxtoshow=&HITS=10&hits=10&RESULTFORMAT=&fulltext=World-Wide+Telescope&searchid=1&FIRSTINDEX=0&resourcetype=HWCIT. I haven’t been able to confirm it, but I’m pretty sure that a full reprint of this article is at http://research.microsoft.com/research/pubs/view.aspx?msr_tr_id=MSR-TR-2002-75.

So what’s the SQL Server tie in? I have to admit that I’ve been unable to nail down exactly how SQL Server is used in the WorldWide Telescope. I have some questions into Microsoft and will provide an update as soon as I hear back. I do know that the WorldWide Telescope is based on work that Gray and others did for the SkyServer, which was launched in 2001. SkyServer is based on federated SQL Servers and includes more than 14 billion rows of data.

I spent some time on the Internet trying to track down specific data about how SQL Server might be used in the WorldWide Telescope. I wasn’t able to find any information about it, but I did run across an interesting PowerPoint presentation delivered by Gray and Szalay at http://research.microsoft.com/~Gray/talks/Genomics_VO_Talk.ppt. By "interesting" I mean that I barely understood any of it because it addressed very complex astronomical topics that I’d better understand if I had advanced degrees following my name. However, the presentation did point out some of the attributes of the WorldWide Telescope that make it an intriguing use of database technology, including pushing existing database approaches to the limits through massive federation; complex data types including temporal, spatial, and rich imagery that should be searchable, not just displayed; and high-dimensional data. Gray points out that the data necessary to eventually encompass everything that the WorldWide Telescope does might require pedabytes of storage. Federated storage on that scale certainly pushes traditional database technology in new and interesting directions. All of these are very interesting database needs.

The WorldWide Telescope can be found at www.worldwidetelescope.org. Interesting information about the project can be found at http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/presskits/worldwidetelescope/materials.mspx. I’ll make sure to update you when I can confirm that SQL Server is being used in the WorldWide Telescope.