Thoughts about Google Sky

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.
Night Sky in Google Earth 4.2
Here are my thoughts and ruminations about Sky so far:
General observations
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. 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.

About Frank Taylor

Frank Taylor started the Google Earth Blog in July, 2005 shortly after Google Earth was first released. He has worked with 3D computer graphics and VR for many years and was very impressed with this exciting product. Frank completed a 5.5 year circumnavigation of the earth by sailboat in June 2015 which you can read about at Tahina Expedition, and is a licensed pilot, backpacker, diver, and photographer.

PLEASE NOTE: Google Earth Blog is no longer writing regular posts. As a result, we are not accepting new comments or questions about Google Earth. If you have a question, use the official Google Earth and Maps Forums or the Google Earth Community Forums.


  1. “Google Universe” perhaps for the new name?

  2. How about GoogleU – kinda catchy ain’t it 🙂

  3. I installed google sky, and the earth appears dark, showing the earth at night. I switch to sky it shows the sky, but back to earth and the globe is dark with city lights. How is that turned off?
    I can’t search a location at night, you can’t see anything. What am I missing here?

  4. Nice post Frank. About the name, I think that Google Universe is the one to go.

  5. Doug Peltz says

    I was one of those people expressing disappointment with Google Sky (I commented in one of the posts yesterday).
    I just wanted to state for the record that I found Frank’s review (above) food for thought, and I’m going to have to reconsider my evaluation.
    So, thank you for this Frank.
    Perhaps, as Frank suggests, with time it will go on to be greatly improved, and surpass some of the freeware programs (e.g. Celestia).
    I do think Stellarium, given its ground-based perspective, is in a category unique from Celestia or Google Sky, and therefore better faciliates the learning of the motions of celestial objects as seen from Earth (a crucial first-step for any would-be amateur astronomer).
    I’m skeptical that widespread familiarty with Google Sky will lead to any near-term increase in users of other astronomy software. But what can I say? Google’s mission is to “organize the world’s information”, not to “increase familiarty and enjoyment of the natural world”. Reflecting on this, Google Sky makes perfect sense for what Google is trying to do. The latter motto, is perhaps best reserved for a company yet-to-be.

  6. I’ve not yet downloaded the new google earth w/google sky, but I’ve heard that some of the images of objects are on the old side, not all the most recent images. Is this true? And does it give the names of and descriptions of all space objects that are found?

  7. you should check out program called “Celestia” it sould help you with improving your new Google Sky feature

  8. Personally, I’d call it “Verse”.
    Although it’s a visualization that’s beginning to extend into the “Universe”, it doesn’t necessarily tie it in with the concept of the exchange of our presence and our sharing of the known Universe.
    “Verse”, as a name, would tie-in with the ideological approach toward the realities of chaining, or linking together, all these concepts which Google Earth — as an application — can and will be utilized.

  9. One thing that happens when you use Google Earth a lot is you gain a better feeling for scale – the relative sizes of cities, countries, mountain ranges, continents. Being able to zoom in and out exponentially, all while traversing small and large distances, gives you a very good mental grasp of the orders of magnitude encountered in earth-based cartography – from 10^1 meters up to 10^5 meters. I think that this ability to visualize large variations in scale is a big part of what Avi Bar-Zeev calls “high spatial cognition”, and GE is a great way to train your mind to develop it.
    Now, the new Sky feature has the potential to extend our envelope of understanding to still greater orders of magnitude – scales that perhaps only astronomers are comfortable thinking about, 10^6 meters and beyond.
    Or, on a more mundane level, at least it will make the reams of public domain images that Americans pay for available in a more accessible format, rather than being buried on some obscure website.

  10. I went to and it told me 7 users online. It may be a better program but it cant beat Googles advertising machine. If the aim is to disseminate information about astronomy to the general public then Google has already beaten simply by having more users – whatever the quality of the information is, if nobody knows its there it is of no value.

  11. Why is another area on Google Sky (37 Pegasi) apparently censored out?

PLEASE NOTE: Google Earth Blog is no longer writing regular posts. As a result, we are not accepting new comments or questions about Google Earth. If you have a question, use the official Google Earth and Maps Forums or the Google Earth Community Forums.