Microsoft Open-Sources WorldWide Telescope

Microsoft has open-sourced its WorldWide Telescope project giving it an MIT license and landing it in the .NET Foundation.

Telescope unlocked

Microsoft announced it has open-sourced its WorldWide Telescope (WWT) project, a rich visualization environment that functions as a virtual telescope and provides guided explorations of the universe.

The WorldWide Telescope is now open sourced under the MIT license and has become an independent project as part of the .NET Foundation. WWT brings together imagery from the best ground- and space-based telescopes and enables panning and zooming across the night sky blending terabytes of images, data and stories from multiple sources over the Internet into a media-rich, immersive experience, Microsoft said.

The WWT effort began in 2007 as a Microsoft Research project, with early partners including astronomers and educators from Caltech, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, the University of Chicago and several NASA facilities.

In a joint post on the Microsoft Research Connections blog, Jonathan Fay, principal software development engineer, Michael Zyskowski, engineer manager, and Jim Pinkelman, senior director -- all of Microsoft Research, said over the past eight years, millions of people have downloaded and used WorldWide Telescope, coming to rely on its unified astronomical image and data environment for exploratory research, teaching and public outreach.

Indeed, WorldWide Telescope was designed with rich interactivity in mind, the post said. And Guided Tours, which are especially popular among educators and astronomy enthusiasts, offer scripted paths through the 3D environment, enabling users to view and create media-rich interactive stories about anything from star formation to the discovery of the large-scale structure of the universe.

“This year, we decided to make the WorldWide Telescope available under an open source license to allow any individual or organization to adapt and extend the functionality to meet any research or educational need,” the post said.

“We believe that extensions and improvements to the software will continuously enhance formal and informal learning and astronomical research,” the Microsoft researchers said. “Making the code available will also help ensure that the data, protocols and techniques used are also available for others to inspect, use, adapt and improve upon in their own applications. Ultimately, open sourcing WorldWide Telescope will also allow the wider community to guide and participate in future development efforts such that it evolves to meet the needs of future users.”

The WorldWide Telescope also supports developers, enabling customization to developers through tools and interfaces. Developer tools enable the customization of data for both the WorldWide Telescope Windows Client and Web Control.

The project also boasts a WorldWide telescope SDK. The WWT SDK is a comprehensive software development kit that enables developers to build apps that transmit data to be rendered in WorldWide Telescope. The SDK is a set of development tools and sample applications that enable data to be easily imported and visualized in WorldWide Telescope. It enables the creation of applications that allow users to import and visualize their data in the WorldWide Telescope Windows Client and share it with others. Using the SDK, users can convert flat images of the entire Earth, a section of the Earth, or of any other planetary body, into a format that will render in full 3D in WorldWide Telescope.

“The SDK simplifies data import and collaboration, lowering the entry barrier so that we can more easily experience and share the visualization and storytelling capabilities of WorldWide Telescope,” said Rob Fatland, senior research program manager at Microsoft Research, in a statement.

“As a long-term collaborator, user and proponent of WorldWide Telescope, releasing it as open source is a natural and significant next step for the project,” said Alyssa Goodman, a Harvard astronomy professor and researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in a statement. “Educators, students and researchers now have the ability to directly influence and contribute to the future development and potential of this unique tool.”

WorldWide Telescope is written in .NET and the code is available at This release brings a new, complex open source project to both the .NET and astronomical communities, and it represents a substantial extension of the projects within the .NET Foundation.

“We are very keen to help the team develop in the open, and now that WorldWide Telescope is open source, any individual or organization will be able to adapt and extend the functionality of the application and services to meet their research or educational needs,” said Martin Woodward, executive director of the .NET Foundation, in a blog post. “Not only can they contribute those changes back to the wider community through a pull request, but they’ll allow others to build on their research and development. Extensions to the software will continuously enhance astronomical research, formal and informal learning, and public outreach, while also leveraging the power of the .NET ecosystem.”