Benjamin is only six years old, but he's already checked out a Nebula in deep space.
"I read that the Ring Nebula is 2,300 light years away," the Toronto-area child says matter-of-factly in his tiny voice as he leads the online world on his personal tour of deep space. "I don't know how far that is, but it's a very, very long bike ride."
Benjamin is indeed a lucky lad. He has had a glimpse at the stars as most have never seen them - but will soon be able to - thanks to a new web-based project from Microsoft Research Labs. The World Wide Telescope will change the way Ben and all the rest of us are able to see the heavens when the beta version launches May 12.
The WWT project was undertaken in anticipation of 2009's Year of Astronomy, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei's first publicly demonstrated observations of space using a crude telescope.
Until now, stargazing was limited to those with telescopes and the patience to wait for a clear night. People in large cities also have to deal with the problem of the ambient glow from street lamps and building lights that obscures much of the light from distant stars, something Ben gleefully calls "light pollution."
His fascination with the stars began long before his dad Mike's acquaintance with Microsoft researcher Curtis Wong led to a sneak preview of WWT last February - something he eagerly demonstrates by pulling out his favourite books of space and pointing out his favourite stars, Vega and Pistol.
"It's so cool," says Ben, and who could disagree with the astute youngster? "I have a telescope and I've seen the moon, but it was blurry, not like this. And there's too much light pollution here to see it properly."
Think of the WWT as Google Earth in reverse. Instead of using your web browser to zoom in on locations around the planet, the WWT zooms in on sections of the sky by tapping into recorded pictures from the hard drives of large institutional telescopes around the world and the images sent back to Earth from craft drifting through space.
Google has a similar project called GoogleSky (Google.com/sky). Though it isn't as far developed as the WWT beta site, the rivalry between the two giants means the public should emerge as winners no matter what.
What you get from the WWT site is an incredible patchwork of images that are stitched together almost seamlessly. Visitors can scan the sky to any exposure and then zoom in for a closer look at things that catch their eye.
Gives guided tours
The images are tagged with commentaries. Curious about what you're looking at? Click and download a podcast by a leading astronomer explaining what you're looking at and how it ties into their research.
Or use the Web 2.0 component by clicking on commentaries from anyone who wants to post - like Ben, whose perspective brought laughter and applause from an audience at the prestigious Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference in March, an annual gathering of the world's leading thinkers and doers. (See the introduction.)
"You can see the green, yellow, red and blue because different gasses give up different colour," Ben tells us. "This picture of the Ring Nebula is beautiful. It looks like a fresh bowl of Jell-O with some red and orange stuff like fire."
Most of all, Ben is attracted to the colours of the stars themselves as seen through the World Wide Telescope. Close up, as only the world's largest observatories or the Hubble Space Telescope see them, our stars transcend the black and white we see with our naked eyes. They are all the colours of a fiery rainbow: Greens, blues, yellows, reds, purples, whites and oranges.
Tribute to a colleague
The WWT project was driven by the practical development of a Microsoft tool, the high-performance Visual Experience Engine, which is the technology that stitches together pictures from an infinite number of sources. Veteran Microsoft scientist Jim Gray first conceived the idea in a paper in 2002. Gray worked on it up until January 2007, when he mysteriously vanished at sea while scattering his mother's ashes from his sailboat off the California coast.
Stunned by the loss of a dear friend and colleague, the researchers at Microsoft vowed to carry his work to completion and make it available free to the public in his memory. Curtis Wong, manager of Next Media Research for Microsoft, who has been studying the future of digital media and interactive entertainment - from TV to broadband to whatever is coming next — picked up the WWT project and has carried it forward.
"World Wide Telescope is dedicated to Jim Gray, and his work is what makes it possible," Curtis told the TED audience in March as he unveiled the project. "It was a labour of love and our small team really hopes it will inspire kids of all ages - kids like us - to explore and learn about the universe."
'It [the World Wide Telescope] was a labour of love and our small team really hopes it will inspire kids of all ages - kids like us - to explore and learn about the universe.' — Microsoft's Curtis Wong
So imagine standing on your deck this summer, with your laptop's screen showing a high-resolution view of the night sky above your head, and zooming closer to see what you've never been able to see - or learn about - before.
It has certainly captured Ben's imagination. His normal curiosity about the sky led to the youngster's interest in the stars, but it's the WWT's window-to-the-heavens technology that has opened his imagination and spurred new learning. While most six-year-olds might be able to name their favourite TV show characters or hockey players, Ben is a walking Wikipedia of space, thoughtfully providing a running narrative on black holes, the temperature on Venus, and fascinating details about some of the obscure areas of space he wants to explore.
And that can't be a bad thing. His dad has promised him a visit to the University of Toronto's David Dunlap Observatory soon and he's anxious to see more of the star Pistol in better resolution.
For this six-year-old, the universe is truly unfolding as it should.
The author is a Toronto-based freelance writer.