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Google has announced a new feature for users of its Google Earth application, and it goes by the name of Sky. Thankfully Rupert Murdoch has not done some dastardly deal with the search giants, but rather Google is enabling users to 'float through the skies' via Google Earth.

What this upgrade does is provide a tool to allow Earth users to both view and navigate through more than 100 million individual stars and 200 million galaxies, as they would sbe seen from anywhere on the planet. The high resolution imagery and informative overlays promise to create a unique playground for visualizing and learning about space.

Using the new tool is simplicity itself, just click on the Switch to Sky option from the drop-down view menu, and you can then drag, zoom and search the sky just as you would terra firma. Layers are also supported, and in fact there are seven new ones being introduced to launch the Sky feature, namely:

Constellations - From Cassiopeia to Andromeda, the Constellations layer connects the points of constellations through space, labelling each with its given name. Users can learn about the stars that make up their favourite constellations.

Backyard Astronomy - The Backyard Astronomy layer lets users click through a variety of place-marks and information on stars, galaxies, and nebulae visible to the eye, binoculars and small telescopes. This layer is useful for the amateur astronomer who might benefit from a comprehensive, organized way to reference fragments of the night sky.

Hubble Space Telescope Imagery - The HST layer provides the user with over 120 beautiful high-resolution images provided by the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA/ESA's renowned orbiting telescope.

Moon - The Moon layer displays animations of two months of both lunar positions and moon phases.

Planets - The Planets layer exhibits the seven other official planets and their positions in the sky two months into the future.

Users Guide to Galaxies - The Users Guide to Galaxies layer enables users to go on virtual tours through different types of galaxies, from Ursa Minor Dwarf to the Milky Way.

Life of a Star - The Life of a Star layer takes the user on a tour through the different stages of a star's life cycle.


The Sky feature has been cleverly created by Google's Pittsburgh engineering team which has stitched together imagery from numerous scientific third parties including the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), the Digital Sky Survey Consortium (DSSC), CalTech's Palomar Observatory, the United Kingdom Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC), and the Anglo-Australian Observatory (AAO). The initiative was born out of the University of Washington's participation with the Google Visiting Faculty Program, which makes it possible for leading academic researchers to visit Google with their work for 6-12 month periods.

Lior Ron, Product Manager at Google, told DaniWeb: "We're excited to provide users with rich astronomical imagery and enhanced content that enables them to both learn about what they're seeing and tell their own stories. By working with some of the industry's leading experts, we've been able to transform Google Earth into a virtual telescope."

While Dr. Carol Christian of STScI, who co-led the organization's Sky team, added: "Never before has a roadmap of the entire sky been made so readily available. Anyone interested in exploring the wonders of our universe can quickly see where the stunning objects photographed by Hubble actually dwell in the heavens. Sky in Google Earth will foster and initiate new understanding of the universe by bringing it to everyone's home computer."

The announcement follows last month's inclusion of the NASA layer group in Google Earth, showcasing NASA's Earth exploration. The group has three main components, including Astronaut Photography of Earth, Satellite Imagery, and Earth City Lights. Astronaut Photography of Earth showcases photographs of the Earth as seen from space from the early 1960s on, while Satellite Imagery highlights Earth images taken by NASA satellites over the years and Earth City Lights traces well-lit cities across the globe.

To access Sky in Google Earth, users need to download the newest version of Google Earth, available here.

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