Use Google Earth to Explore the Cosmos Beyond Our Planet

screenshot of Google Sky

Photo from Google  

Stargazers have a wealth of tools at hand to assist in sky observations. One of those helpers is Google Earth, one of the most used apps on the planet. Its astronomy component is called Google Sky, which shows the stars, planets, and galaxies as seen from Earth. The app is available for most flavors of computer operating systems and is easily accessible via a browser interface.

About Google Sky

Think of Google Sky on Google Earth as a virtual telescope that lets the user float through the cosmos at any pace. It can be used to view and navigate through hundreds of millions of individual stars and galaxies, explore the planets, and much more. High-resolution imagery and informative overlays create a unique playground for visualizing and learning about space. The interface and navigation are similar to that of standard Google Earth steering, including dragging, zooming, search, "My Places," and layer selection. 

Google Sky Layers

The data on Google Sky is arranged in layers that can be used depending on where the user wants to go. The "constellations" layer shows the constellation patterns and their labels. For amateur stargazers, the "backyard astronomy" layer lets them click through a variety of placemarks and information on stars, galaxies, and nebulae visible to the eye, as well as binoculars and small telescopes. Most observers love to look at planets through their telescopes, and the Google Sky app gives them information where those objects can be found.

As most astronomy fans know, many professional observatories give very detailed, high-resolution views of the cosmos. The "featured observatories" layer contains imagery from some of the world's most famous and productive observatories. Included are the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and many others. Each of the images is located on the star map according to its coordinates, and users can zoom into each view to get more details. Images from these observatories range across the electromagnetic spectrum and show how objects look in many wavelengths of light. For example, galaxies may be seen in both visible and infrared light, as well as ultraviolet wavelengths and radio frequencies. Each part of the spectrum reveals an otherwise hidden side of the object being studied and gives details invisible to the naked eye. 

The "our solar system" layer contains images and data about the Sun, Moon, and planets. Images from spacecraft and ground-based observatories give users a sense of "being there" and include images from lunar and Mars rovers, as well as outer solar system explorers. The "education center" layer is popular with teachers, and contains teachable lessons about the sky, including the "User's Guide to the Galaxies," plus a virtual tourism layer and the popular "Life of a Star." Finally, "historical star maps" provides views of the cosmos that previous generations of astronomers had using their eyes and early instruments. 

To Get and Access Google Sky

Getting Google Sky is as easy as a download from the online site. Then, once it's installed, users simply look for a ​dropdown box at the top of the window that looks like a little planet with a ring around it. It's a great and free tool for astronomy learning. The virtual community shares data, images, and lesson plans, and the app can also be used in a browser. 

Google Sky Particulars 

Objects in Google Sky are clickable, which allows users to explore them up close or from a distance, Each click reveals data about the object's position, characteristics, history, and much more. The best way to learn the app is to click on the Touring Sky box in the left column under Welcome to Sky. 

Sky was created by Google's Pittsburgh engineering team by stitching 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 in the Google Visiting Faculty Program. Google and its partners continually update the app with new data and images. Educators and public outreach professionals also contribute to the app's ongoing development. 

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.

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Your Citation
Greene, Nick. "Use Google Earth to Explore the Cosmos Beyond Our Planet." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Greene, Nick. (2020, August 28). Use Google Earth to Explore the Cosmos Beyond Our Planet. Retrieved from Greene, Nick. "Use Google Earth to Explore the Cosmos Beyond Our Planet." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).