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Weekly Alibi Stars in Cyberspace: Astronomy on the WWW

By Devin D. O'Leary

DECEMBER 7, 1998:  American robots are trundling across Mars; John Glenn's been up in orbit again, and the entire world's trying to build an international space station. I think it's safe to say that we're entering a new space age. That's OK by me. When I was a kid back in the early '70s, there was an implicit promise that--by the time I grew up--we'd have gigantic factories on the moon, own personal rocket ships and be living in orbiting space stations. Somebody fell asleep at the wheel, though, and all we got was portable computers. But with this new race to the stars, who knows? Perhaps the next generation of Americans will end up with all the groovy space-age swag we were promised.

In the meantime, I guess we'll just have to content ourselves with cool pictures beamed back from the outer reaches of our solar system. There are hundreds of great sites on the Internet on which to satisfy your astronomical urges. Just last month, the Hubble space telescope got its own personal Web site on which you can view all kinds of eye-popping space-based images. Here's a list of some great places to go stargazing in cyberspace.

Hubble Heritage Project

(heritage.stsci.edu)--NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute have joined forces to present this official Hubble Web site. The result is a small, but surprisingly artistic photo gallery. A new Hubble image is added on the first Thursday of every month. You can check out the new image or browse old ones--from Saturn to the Bubble Nebula to the mysteriously named NGC 7742. You can choose from "big" or "small" images for each. (The big, by the way, is mighty big). A word of warning, though--the folks at the Heritage Project don't post "straight" Hubble images. Instead, they create assorted collages, adding color and other effects to their collected Hubble data. The result is an eye-popping blend of science and art.

Mars News

(www.jpl.nasa.gov/marsnews/img/july11.html)--One of the great successes of the modern space race, of course, was a little remote controlled Tonka Truck named Mars Rover. Everyone gathered around their computers last summer eagerly waiting for Rover to beam back snapshots from the surface of Mars. Although NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (builders of Mars Rover) has moved on to the super cool new Deep Space One probe (complete with futuristic ion engine), the Mars News Web page is still up and running. Most folks have seen all the good boulder-strewn shots of Mars and can ID such famous rocks as Yogi and Space Ghost by sight. Not many, though, have seen the 3-D shots from Mars. This page contains some spectacular anaglyphic images. All you need is a pair of 3-D glasses (the old blue and red kind), and you can view three-dimensional images of Martian mountains, plains and (of course) rocks. To make things easy on your computer, you can download high- or low-resolution images as GIFs, JPGs or TIFs. Put on the glasses; dial up this Web site, and I guarantee you'll feel like you're in an old sci-fi movie.

Views of the Solar System

(bang.lanl.gov/solarsys/eng/homepage.htm)--Calvin J. Hamilton is an image processing specialist who is obsessed with all things spacy. Consequently, Hamilton's massive Web site gathers together the best pics of our solar system from all over the Web. Major categories include Planets, Comets, Asteroids and Astronomers. The site is also nicely subcategorized. Click on Uranus, for example, and you'll get pages for "Uranus Intro," "Rings," "Statistics," "Animations," "Views" and "Satellites." In addition to the tons of great pictures, Hamilton has included lots of detailed astronomical info in easy-to-grasp layman's terms. This is one of the best, most organized astronomy sites on the Web.

Space Shuttle Photographs

(www.nasm.edu/ceps/RPIF/SSPR.html)--The Center for Earth and Planetary Studies does things a little differently. Instead of looking outward into space, CEPS goes into space and looks back down on Earth. Aside from a couple nice shots of the Space Shuttle itself, this site features pics of Earth taken from orbit. You can get nice big GIFs or JPEGs of every place from Cairo, Egypt, to Stockton, California. The overhead views of volcanoes are especially cool. There's also a nifty geography quiz (can you ID famous cities from space?) and some handy links.

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