Travel around the world — without leaving your desktop

Now you can fly around the world without leaving your computer, courtesy of NASA.

Indeed, you can see Earth from space and zoom all the way down to street level, just by downloading World Wind at Worldwind.arc.nasa.gov.

World Wind lets you zoom into space, fly around the globe, dive to the surface, track volcanic plumes, fires, floods and storms, all from your desktop. It brings together some 10 terabytes of Earth imagery, displaying it at your whim.

The site opens with that classic NASA view of our big blue marble, along with a tool bar across the screen’s top. The toolbar appears unreadable, but move your mouse pointer over any of its icons and they expand. You get accustomed to which does what very quickly.

Right now, the ultimate zoom-in is to U.S. Geological Service aerial photographs of 1-meter resolution, which is surprisingly sharp. NASA plans to add capabilities for such things as plotting hiking trails, mapping census data, and incorporating a lot of other Geographic Information System (GIS) data for ordinary web surfers to draw upon.

There’s already a lot of such information available, and in a fascinating variety of formats. For example, you can shift from overhead images to 3-D views, for incredible landscape detail. They plan to extend that capability below the sea’s surface, at which time you’ll be able to soar over Mount Everest, then dive to the bottom of the Marianas Trench. A lot of the “magic” is accomplished by stitching together Landsat 7 satellite pictures and elevation data from Shuttle radar.

Would you like to know what the approach to a destination airport will look like when you arrive? You can key in the airport’s co-ordinates (lat./long. or GPS), or simply zoom in with your mouse, then level off and fly the approach in 3-D.

World Wind can find timely images of such Earthly events as natural disasters and battles, most of them mere hours after they occur. Furthermore, it can call up older images for comparison, say, of Sumatra’s pre-tsunami coastline with today’s. NASA’s software developers are beginning to integrate news feeds with World Wind images. Eventually, when news breaks you’ll be able to visit its location in near-real time.

A few words of caution, however.

The World Wind software, not to mention the images, take a long time to download. If you are working with a dial-up connection, forget about it or plan to spend many, many hours at your computer. With a very fast T-1 connection, the software download to my fastest computer took 20 minutes. Navigating through World Wind’s vast image files is time-consuming, too.

World Wind will not download successfully to PCs running under older versions of Windows. It looks for the latest version of XP or better. It has no problem with Apple’s operating systems.

Finally, beware of becoming hooked. World Wind travel is addictive.

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