Google Sky

Contributed by
Aug 22, 2007

When Google Earth came out, one of my first thoughts was how cool it would be to have an application like this for the sky. Google Earth is massively useful, and a planetarium app would be too.

Well, today, Google has released a version of Google Earth that maps the sky.

I don't like it.

You read that right. I don't like it. Well, to be clear, I don't like it yet. I think this version is lacking some basic necessities, but once they (and some tweaks) are added this will be a pretty cool app.

For one thing, when I clicked the button to start it, it said it was loading the sky above my current location. However, it doesn't tell me what that current location is. It doesn't tell me what time of day it's using -- the sky moves, so time is crucial. It doesn't move the sky in real time (or provide that option). It doesn't tell me if the Sun is up or not. It doesn't tell me where the horizon is.

These are all relatively simple things to put in, and I'm sure Google will install them eventually. But it seems odd not to have them available in the first release version.

There are some oddities. When I click on, for example, the Owl Nebula (a classic planetary nebula in Ursa Major) it displays an almost illegible image of the object. The description is fine, but the icon says it's a globular cluster! Oops. That was the first image I clicked. How many more are there like that?

The red dots marking objects tend to actually cover the objects, making it hard to see them (in the Crab Nebula it covers the pulsar, so I can't see it without making the dot disappear, and it's not obvious how to do that). It's not obvious how to zoom in and out (turns out it's by double left and right clicking, but I found that by accident -- that must be a feature of Google Earth in general I didn't know about).

In the search box, if I type in my home address and go there, it sends me to a location in the constellation of Auriga. I suspect that's what is directly overhead right now, but it doesn't say!

There are some nice things, of course. Lots of objects from Hubble are integrated into the maps, for one, as are images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (some odd image artifacts got in as well that should have been cleaned up, for that matter). The star maps are not bad, though patchy in spots. There are ctalogs of objects as different layers, which is useful. Zooming in and out is too slow for my taste (I'm impatient) but the way the stars appear and fade during zooming is nice, and that's not easy to program so I'm impressed with how they did it.

But still, I'm scratching my head over why they left out so many obvious and necessary features in the first release. I think Google Sky can be a great tool, I really do, but to be a useful planetarium app it needs work. The enormous benefit of Google Earth is twofold: it allows you to interactively examine the Earth, and it allows people to add homemade features to it if they know how to code them or where to find them.

Interactively examining the sky is nice, but Google Sky needs work. It's more of a gee-whiz photo album than a real piece of interactive software. IMO most folks will play with it for a few minutes and then stop using it, since at the moment it isn't much more than a clickable way to look at objects on the sky. Once real interactivity is built into it -- a way to see what's up now, or tomorrow night, or on my trip to Alaska at 2:00 a.m. -- it will begin to realize its potential.

Imagine if users can add their own images, for example. Or it displays satellite tracks in the sky, or where deep space probes are, or where Hubble is pointed right now, or where Jupiter will be in October. Google Sky will be an incredibly cool tool and will have real staying power... but it needs some more basics first. Until then, I'd rather go straight to the Hubble site to view images, and if I want to know what's up now, I'd rather use some free apps to map the sky.

C'mon, Google folks! I know how smart you are! Get this rolling. Add these basic features, and you'll find people using this software in droves. And you can add me to that list.

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