Microsoft, NASA and Open Source

by Peter Galli on June 02, 2009 10:05am

There has been some renewed media interest in the NASA Space Act Agreement with Microsoft, which was signed earlier this year.

Microsoft signed that agreement so as to provide an umbrella framework of contractual terms that allows for a variety of cooperative projects. At the same time, we also entered into a project agreement that had an initial project to write code that would allow for the conversion of a lot of data about the planets (the planetary data system) and Martian survey information (LROC) into the World Wide Telescope (WWT) format. 

WWT is an online program that pulls together images from across space and which lets users use their computer screens to traverse the universe.

Conversion of the information into the WWT format Tessellated Octahedral Adaptive Subdivision Transform (TOAST), allows the data to be viewed in both the WWT client and a newly developed Silverlight version of the client that supports multiple platforms, while other clients can also implement TOAST. The WWT is a freely downloadable Windows client application.

TOAST displays flat images, like those from telescopes,on representations of spherical objects like planets and moons, on a computer screen. One of the primary reasons for adapting the TOAST format for WWT was that it can accurately render the celestial poles with little distortion.

The traditional Mercator projection that is used by Google Earth and Sky in Google Earth cannot accurately render terrain or the sky within 15 degrees of the poles. TOAST is able to accurately render the sky and polar regions of the sky, Earth and planets with little distortion, which was important to both WWT and NASA.

The intent all along was also to make the conversion utilities that were developed for this initial project available under an open source licensed distribution. This is part of Microsoft's Open Edge strategy, which allows for the extension of the platforms that we provide to the community, by the community, in cooperation with the leading domain authorities - in this case NASA. 

The WWT platform is the best astronomical data visualization technology available, and it makes sense that the most knowledgeable members of the community should be able to extend the platform with a variety of components under a mixture of licensing models.

As Alyssa Goodman, a Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University, says: "If only we could travel faster than the speed of light, we could leave our solar system, go past the nearby stars of our galaxy, leave the Milky Way and visit the many galaxies beyond. Until then more and more incredible telescopes, including this WorldWide Telescope, will continue to let us marvel at the wonders of the Universe."

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