So I wrote a few days (or so) back about a new Microsoft software suite designed to give users an interactive view of the universe, an aggregation of a lot of the fantastic imagery gathered by our various orbital and ground-based radio, infrared and optical telescopes.
This is really exciting for me, the fusion of hard science and easy consumption: it seems like a phenomenal way to get people excited about the amazing work NASA and related research institutions are doing with their meager budgets while we blow money on various other (occasionally hostile) endeavors.
Well, it looks like Google has beaten Mr. Gates to the punch: They recently released Google Sky, a relative of their popular and well-engineered Google Earth and Google Maps functions. The interface is a little clunky, and since it is 2-dimensional it doesn't really convey the sense of an all-encompassing universe, but nonetheless there is some spectacular imagery that's worth exploring. Being able to pan around and zoom (in some areas to INCREDIBLE resolution) is a lot of fun.
If it's your first look:
The round objects are (believe it or not) stars. Anything that seems very bright and large and round is a "field star" - one of our close neighbors that takes up a lot of space in a telescope image.
The flat discs and oblongs and pinwheel shapes are galaxies. WHOLE OTHER GALAXIES. Every tiny pinprick of light you can see is a star in our little galaxy. These disc-shaped, sometimes blurry objects are other galaxies with just as many individual stars in them, if not more.
The clouds and blurs are largely nebulae: the cloud of gas and dust that are slowly aggregating by gravity into stars: "stellar nurseries," if you will.
Have a look at some of the images, explore a little, play with the Hubble gallery especially.
I still think that Microsoft's World Wide Telescope will be a superior product, but this one is quick, download-free, and fun to browse. Plus, it's out already, which is a big advantage.