Space — the final frontier, and all that jazz. As the folk over at the Hubble Telescope website say, “Your body may be trapped at your desk, but your imagination can roam the far reaches of the universe, thanks to the wonders of the web.”
Here’s a spaced-out selection of sites and social media resources that will have you reading the thoughts of astronauts, taking a virtual tour of the International Space Station, and viewing galaxies far, far away.
Get your space geek fix below, and, as always, please do share any resources we’ve overlooked in the comments box.
1. Mission Control: Space Agencies on the Web
There’s a ton of space agencies around the globe, together boasting an estimated $44 billion annual budget to find out more about space. While capabilities vary dramatically from country to country (not all have basic launch capability, let alone manned spaceflight, and the only two with lunar landing capability are NASA and the Russia’s CCCP), most are doing interesting work that can be perused online.
NASA dominates online as it does in space (which might have something to do with the fact that its funding is currently around $12 billion ahead of even the nearest agency), offering the best online experience. You could easily lose yourself in the official NASA site, which is highly recommended if you have a spare 36 hours or so to kill.
Other official online destinations for the major space programs around the globe include the European Space Agency, with which Canada enjoys the special status of a “Cooperating State.” Staying in Europe, both France’s Centre National D’Etudes Spatiales and the German Aerospace Center offer English language versions of their sites, as does the Russian Federal Space Agency.
The official online destination for the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, is painfully dry, but chock full of fascinating content if you can stand to stick around, while in contrast, the China National Space Administration site takes a more poetic approach to space exploration. At one point, they explain why the moon is liked by the people of Earth: “because of its thin brilliance that brings lovers with quiet warmth in the night, it is likened to a jade plate or a lovely and graceful woman.”
2. Online Observatories
It goes without saying that the Hubble Telescope’s official site is the go-to place for some amazing real-life space imagery. Thankfully, the official site offers a wealth of photography via galleries, most of which you can download for personal use as desktop wallpaper, etc. Better still, there’s plenty of info explaining what’s in the photos and why it matters. There’s also the option to see where the Hubble is at any time during its 97-minute sweeps around the Earth.
Elsewhere on the web, both Google() and Microsoft offer a glimpse of our galaxy. Sky in Google Earth is a feature of the virtual world software that, at the click of a button, will show you the sky above your location with the option to navigate to certain points, or pan and scroll around to see stars, planets, constellations and more — as well as photos from the Hubble.
In addition to mapping the Earth and providing space data, Google offers 3D models of both the Moon and Mars. The features give you a glimpse at lunar landscapes and Apollo landing sites, as well as Martian points of interest like the so-called Face on Mars or Olympus Mons. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can even have a brief chat with a local.
Microsoft’s real-time simulation of the company’s World Wide Telescope project is now integrated into Bing() search as a Bing Maps application. In addition to viewing celestial bodies in real-time as if you were to look up at the night sky, there are pre-loaded “collections” of constellations that can be viewed against Streetside (i.e. 3D photo) maps.
If you’d like to know what the innards of the International Space Station look like, you can take a 360-degree tour over at Boeing’s website. NASA offers something similar, but we found Boeing’s option easier to use.
3. Cosmic Connections on Facebook and Twitter
NASA is big on Facebook() with over 30 different accounts and Fan Pages. We’re not going to list them all here, rather just point you to NASA’s main account. But you might want to browse the full list and cherry pick the areas you’re interested in following.
The ISS’s Facebook pages, meanwhile, will keep you updated with the goings-on at the cosmic outpost, while becoming a fan of the X PRIZE Foundation will connect you to all the gossip about the multi-million dollar race to the moon, and other endeavors.
Those with an eye to the future can beat the crowds by signing up to fan the James Webb Space Telescope on Facebook. As the successor to the Hubble, the super-duper, high-tech infrared telescope is due to launch in 2014, and the related Facebook Fan Page offers info on the project, as well as the option to comment on it and connect with others who share your interest.
If you want to stay in touch with space organizations and people on a more real-time basis, Twitter() has a wealth of accounts that are worth following, including one for the aforementioned Webb Telescope.
As well as following the big agencies like NASA (which offers a useful list of who is in space right now), individual astronauts can followed for a more personal view.
As you can imagine, there are quite a few astronauts who tweet, especially with NASA’s pro-social media approach. But a few to get you started include Mike Massimino, the first man to tweet from space, U.S. Army Astronaut Col. Tim Kopra, Soichi Noguchi, Clayton C. Anderson, Nicole Stott and Naoko Yamazaki.
Tip: If you want to cheat, you can just follow the NASA Astronauts account for more of an overview.
Twisst is great account that offers personalized alerts for when the International Space Station is passing over your geographical area — as it’s visible to the naked eye, it’s certainly worth keeping a look out for it.
Our favorite by far however, is the Twitter home for JPL’s Near Earth Object Office that coordinates NASA’s efforts to detect and track potentially hazardous asteroids and comets headed to, or near, Earth. Follow this account if you’re looking for a heads-up on the planet’s imminent doom.
4. Void-Filling Video
As in other areas, NASA really shines when it comes to online video resources. As well as offering exciting live-streamed launches, there’s a NASA TV area within the site’s main multimedia offerings, an official USTREAM() channel, and over ten official YouTube() channels including the main one.
5. An Astronomically Cool App
We run the risk of sounding like NASA cheerleaders here, but the free iPhone app the organization offers is a must-have for iPhone- and iPod touch-owning space geeks. It is, quite simply, mega. You can easily burn ten space-faring minutes at a time on categories like “Missions,” which includes detailed info about ongoing and recent operations, “Images,” with an Image of the Day that you can share via Twitter, Facebook Connect and e-mail, or “Videos” and “Updates,” the latter of which aggregates official feeds from Twitter into a timeline of interesting info. The only catch is that due to the wealth of info the app can access and its dynamic updates, you do need to be connected to use it. But when you are, it’s like having NASA in your pocket.