I look at some of the best sites inside the internet for exploring outside of the atmosphere.
Hey kids, learning can be fun! Especially if you’re killing time wandering around the internet. Okay, so for the uninitiated youth, the internet is about spying on what friends of friends are doing, reading lies about nonsense and looking at pictures of cats – but eventually the mind’s got to settle and think, ‘well, what else can I do with the internet?’
The answer to that is easy and non-negotiable. It’s education! Yay!
For a grown man like me it’s an opportunity to recapture lost fascinations on a more adult level. When I was a kid I had to go to bed at 8, but sometimes I didn’t fall asleep until 11. So what did I do with all that time trapped under my covers?
No, not that you dirty bugger. I was only seven. Fortunately for me the head of my bed was positioned right in the window, so I spent a lot of my time gawping up at the stars (the constellation of Orion always trundled past my view) and wondering, casually, what the Hell?
Time marches on and we are liable to forget our childish wonderments as we attend to our micro-worlds of business, socialising and trying to consume as-much-as-we-possibly-can-no-matter-what-the-cost. But eventually, in this day-and-age, a lot of us are bound to find ourselves in front of a computer with a will to do something other than what we’re supposed to be doing.
So where do we go? The best answer I have to that is back to our childhoods, to pick up where we left off when we were distracted by the obtuse, adult world. Space is not for everyone, but if like me you grew up aware of this marvellous place of adventure above your head, forever just out of reach, then I’ve got a few pre-prepared websites here to whet your appetite. Get ready for – duh Duh DUH! – The websurfers guide to the Galaxy.
Okay, it’s not that exciting. It’s quite interesting though.
1) IIpMooViewer. This website is a great starter. It’s a bit like the total-perspective Vortex in Hitchhiker’s Guide… (a machine that sends you crazy by showing you the mind-blowing dimensions of the universe, with a little dot within a dot that says ‘you are here’), but as yet less comprehensive, because it only shows you our galaxy in one, great composite photograph. Still, it’s pretty mind-boggling to see a great proportion of the 100 billion stars that are in the Milky Way, and think about how actually tiny we are. It’s also quite beautiful. (Why did we call it ‘The Milky Way’ by the way? When we meet people from Andromeda, or the Sombrero galaxy, they’re going to act all superior, because they’ve got the cooler sounding names).
To navigate the IIpMoo, use your scroll wheel to zoom in and out, click and drag left and right and ‘h’ to hide the map. It’s purely a visual effort, so the controls are quite easy. A full list of controls is just a right click away.
2) Scale of the universe 2. A follow-up Total Perspective Vortex. I can spend ages with this one. This page is a framework with a lot of common objects in the universe and on our planet set up in relation to each other, by their actual corresponding sizes. Two controls: again the mouse wheel to zoom in and out, and click on an object to read a bit of information and quite possibly some wit about it. Zoom in to look at quantum foam or out to the size of the universe. Nice and smoothly made. It even has some lovely ‘discovery’ music. Leave the page open with the music playing and do some other stuff to turn your life into a voyage of discovery. Oh, and when you’re done with the universe you can check out some crazy games elsewhere on the site.
3) Galaxy Zoo. On this page you get to work for scientists when you probably should be working for whoever you’re working for. The Hubble telescope and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey have taken photos of millions of distant galaxies. The problem is, how do they spend the time sorting and classifying them? The answer: they don’t, you do! (Well, they take the data you’ve inputted, along with others and that way they can sift through and find the galaxies they’re looking for).
I’m not going to lie to you (just this once), you have to have a bit of patience as you could spend around five or so minutes classifying blurry images of nothing, but when you come across a corker of a spiral-arm galaxy with central bar features it can be worth it. There’s even the possibility that you’re the first person to have ever seen these galaxies.
To aid classification, there is a help button, which you can click for every question and it will show you examples, from which you can pick the closest option. Also you can discuss the galaxies you’re classifying on the forum and save your favourites to come back and pour over later.
4) Hubblesite.org. Not content with discovering blurry images? Maybe you prefer your solar system, galaxies and universe set out for you on a plate? The homepage of the Hubble telescope (one of our most powerful telescopes, which is conveniently situated in space) displays for your pleasure the best captures it has made, with explanations and so forth. With news, videos and information on everything Hubble related, it’s a great database for the most efficacious telescope of our times.
5) Eyes on the Solar System. Maybe the universe and the galaxy are too grand for your head to cope with. That’s understandable. After all the solar system we live in is big enough as it is. Let’s explore that first, eh? Eyes on the Solar System is one of a number of interactive ‘explore the solar system’ pages, and probably the best. Its default setting shows you the solar system in real time as it wheels through the galaxy, complete with a bunch of satellites and probes that NASA sent up, and what they’re currently getting up to. You can also go back in time to older missions or states of the solar system, and likewise forward. The controls are a bit complex, so you might want to take the tour, and the project is currently in beta, so some of the information I believe is still missing. An alternative, perhaps slightly better looking site would be Solar System Scope, a good site if you’re an astrologer, as you can move forwards and backwards through time and check the positions of planets and constellations from a number of viewpoints, including the Earth. The music’s a bit full on, like an annoying PC game of conquest or something.
6) Get off your computer, out of the city and look at the stars. Having said all of this, our fascinations should never be second-hand. If it’s the universe that enthrals you, take some time to step out of your daily life and go and observe it yourself. There really is no substitute for that, even if you don’t have access to a powerful telescope, in a dark place our eyes can take in some amazing sights. Happy hunting!