Ok, I’ve had a whole 48+ hours now to play with the new Google Earth 4.2 Sky feature. Since I worked in a planetarium, and have a degree in astronomy from the University of Arizona, my enthusiasm for Sky is pretty high. I’ll explain more reasons why below. I’ve read many posts in blogs and forums in the last two days about what people are saying about Sky (some bad, but mostly good). There’s no question the release of this new product is a significant event which has captured a lot of attention from people and the media world-wide.
Here are my thoughts and ruminations about Sky so far:
Many of us, who think Google Earth has been a wonderful tool for viewing the Earth, have asked Google to use the same tool and techniques to look at other planets and places of the universe. Sky is certainly a wonderful first step. It stays true to Google Earth’s formula for success by providing high resolution imagery, intuitive and easy-to-use interface with the mouse, layers with more information, the same kind of tools for sharing and annotating places with others (placemarks, image overlays, network links, etc.), and most importantly it gives an exciting new look at places many people have never viewed with their own eyes. Just like GE opened our eyes and gave us exciting opportunities to explore our planet, this new release is already doing the same thing for the night sky.
Some people have already criticized the new Sky feature because they claim it is not doing something original. There are many night sky viewing applications (or planetarium software applications) already out there. Some cost money (for example Starry Night – a wonderful product I consider well worth the money!), but many are free (for example: Celestia, Stellarium, and WorldWind), and some even work in browsers (e.g. Sky-Map.org). Some complaints are valid and are simply related to Sky being such a new beta product (like where is the SpaceNavigator support?). And, some of those who believe in these other “competing” products have been quick to criticize missing capabilities in Sky which they view as essential. For example, they ask: Where is the horizon in Sky? Why does it do such a poor job at showing the planets? Where is the Sun? Can it control your telescope? Why doesn’t it find all of the most popular deep sky objects when you search?
Some of these criticisms are valid. Sky doesn’t do all the things these other programs can do. It isn’t a real planetarium program which would help you plan a night’s observations of deep sky objects with a good telescope. It doesn’t really simulate the sky with day and night and exact views of the heavens and planets as you would see them with your unaided eye. But, I think the people who are criticizing Sky for some of these limitations are missing the potential significance of Sky and the positive effects it will have on astronomy, and in raising awareness. Things that will help increase the number of people who will want to use some of these other applications.
There were similar reactions when Google Earth first came out. In fact, Google Earth had a profound effect on the GIS industry because it suddenly made so many more people aware of the importance geospatial information and the importance of professional data and services for maintaining things like our civic infrastructure and plans. At first, many in the GIS industry criticized Google Earth strongly and said it would damage the credibility of GIS. And generate inaccurate/false information. And many developers of other similar applications also criticized features which they felt were missing or inadequate in Google Earth. Instead, I think Google Earth has had a significant effect helping to raise geo-spatial awareness world-wide. Many people and companies are now thinking about the importance of tying information to location. All of the other applications out there have also contributed to this effect, but if you look at the numbers – Google Earth has clearly had the most significant effect. And, many in the GIS industry now will tell you they are glad for what GE has done to help their industry grow.
Not only that, but many scientists have found Google Earth a great way to help the general public visualize their scientific results and get more support for their research. Non-profit organizations have been able to show the public the locations of man-made disasters and get support for their causes. And businesses have been using it to help market their goods, show the locations of their establishments, and even sell new products and services. And, other similar products to GE have mostly continued to grow in popularity themselves.
What is the significance of Sky?
Sky is a great new way to view the night sky and learn and see wonderful objects in deep space. But, more importantly it is riding on the coattails of an incredibly popular product (Google Earth) and the brand awareness of Google. As a result, I believe Sky will rapidly gain public awareness and popularity. In fact, if it hasn’t already happened, it won’t be long before there are more people with Sky installed on their computer than all of the other installations of astronomy programs combined. Google has obviously worked hard to incorporate the same elements which made GE so popular. It has a huge deep database of imagery, and a wealth of annotations with the layers showing some of the most interesting things visible in Sky. And, it uses most of the features which have made sharing exciting finds with other people easy and fun.
I think Sky will have a positive effect of making more people aware of astronomy – just like GE has done for GIS, cartography, geography, and more. A big part of the team who developed the data for Sky are actual astronomers who work for organizations like Space Telescope Science Institute and NASA (more info on those who helped). Other astronomers will find that Sky can help them share their data with the general public and get more support for much-needed funding to further their research (see an example already). And just as GE is increasingly being used in education, I think Sky will also prove valuable to help educators teach about science and astronomy (astronaut Sally Ride thinks so too). I predict that even more people will be interested in buying or using other popular night sky applications (like Starry Night, Celestia, Stellarium, and Sky-map).
If you haven’t done it yet, go ahead and downlaod GE 4.2. Try out the new Sky feature, and enjoy the other new features for Google Earth as well.
Some other notes
If you want to see some interesting examples of how Sky is already being extended through communities and new KML content – looked at the new Sky forum, or see some of these KML files. Some of the Sky team members have been commenting in the forum on the suggestions and future plans of Sky.
About the name
Apparently at one point the product was going to be called gSky. Many are calling it Google Sky now. I’m sure Google struggled with whether to make this a separate product, but they obviously chose to make it a part of Google Earth. I kind of like calling it Google Earth & Sky. But, what happens when Google starts adding other planets and the moon (which I think they will obviously do one day)? The “Google Earth, Moon, Mars & Sky”? Someone will need to think about a new naming convention I think.