“Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.” – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
If you’re a fan of space exploration, you might sometimes feel left out of the loop. There’s the Hubble Space Telescope, taking awesome pictures of the cosmos, and Kepler hunting Earth-like planets in star systems light years away.
For most of us, we’ll only ever see the results of these missions, and never play a role in their amazing discoveries (hold that thought).
But that doesn’t mean we can’t still explore. Below are just a handful of interactive websites and software that allow you to explore the universe right at your computer.
WorldWide Telescope is a free program created by Microsoft that uses images collected by the Hubble Space Telescope and several earth-based telescopes. It’s actually accurate enough that astronomers have used it during their research. The program features guided tours, or you can explore on your own.
Hayden Planetarium’s Digital Universe Atlas
The Hayden Planetarium’s Digital Universe Atlas consists of data collected from dozens of worldwide organizations, providing an accurate three-dimensional map of the known universe. The atlas (as far as I can tell) is meant mostly for planetariums, but there’s a free “stripped-down” version called Partview that you can download on their website.
Space Engine is a vast (and free!) universe simulation program. It’s very in-depth, and according to their website, “areas of the known universe are represented using actual astronomical data, while regions uncharted by astronomy are generated procedurally.”
The controls take a bit of getting used to, but once you’re zooming around the cosmos faster than the speed of light, you’ll be glad you tried it. You can even fly through the atmospheres and view the surfaces of planets.
Celestia is an open-source universe simulation that, like Space Engine, allows you to fly through the cosmos or into planet atmospheres in a variety of spacecraft.
It’s based on data collected by the Hipparcos satellite, and has in fact been used by NASA and ESA as an educational tool. But if you find our own universe somehow boring, Celestia also has simulations of the Star Trek and Star Wars universes available. Watch out for the Death Star.
Universe Sandbox is more of, well, a sandbox. It’s a simulator available for $9.95 that lets you experiment with real physics and the variables of the universe, such as gravity, mass, and the orbits of planets. Or you could throw asteroids at those planets. You know, for fun.
Space Shuttle Simulators
NASA’s Space Shuttle program may have ended, but you can still experience what it was like to fly in them with Orbiter 2010 (free download) and Space Shuttle Mission 2007 (premium, but with a free demo). Yes, they’re outdated, but there’s nothing quite like the utter confusion of being faced with 900 buttons and not knowing what a single one does.
Remember up at the beginning of this post when I said most of us will never contribute to space exploration? That’s actually been changing lately, especially with the advent of crowd sourcing on the Internet.
Zooniverse, for example, hosts a number of projects, from studying the surface of the moon to helping Kepler discover new planets. There are projects beyond space, as well, including studies in nature and biology.
Don’t think it works? Over 50 scientific papers have been published using the data collected from Zooniverse projects. Just be sure to read the tutorials before you begin!
And finally, SETILive allows you to assist in the hunt for “interesting signals” collected by the SETI Allen Telescope Array. All you have to do is create an account, read the tutorials, and off you go searching for possible extraterrestrial radio signals.
It’s a long shot, but somebody has to do it.