Review: Google Earth

Google appears to be unstoppable. Their recent projects have involved turning static web pages into interactive presentations, each one more useful than the last. Often called “web services” these new features are taking the World Wide Web into a welcome direction. Google unveiled today their next step, a program called “Google Earth“.

The Earth in Your Computer

If you happen to remember Keyhole, Google Earth will be familiar. In fact, last year Google purchased the maker of Keyhole. Google Earth merges Google Maps with Keyhole’s 3-D globe of the Earth. You can zoom into any location on the planet with greater and greater detail. The satellite images that overlay the 3-D globe have been obtained over the past three years. When I zoom in on my residence in Tucson, Arizona, I can pinpoint nearby streets and the nearby parking garage, but the apartment complex itself is not there. The image was taken before the building was erected. Still, the detail that is available is incredible. Car size objects are identifiable in many regions of Google Earth.

Keyhole offered similar capabilities, but Google Earth adds welcome new features, including an overlay of their own Google Maps, allowing you to find destinations of interest and driving directions to get there. What to order a pizza? Throw out your phone book. In Google Earth, type in “pizza” and the town in which you live and you are just seconds away from a bird’s eye view of ten pizza locations near you. Driving directions are just another click away.

Word descriptions of driving directions are augmented by a map and image of the path you need to travel. If you need even more assistance, press the play button and you will watch a flythrough of your path, in 3-D perspective. This is great help in visualizing where you are heading; in other words, try it before you drive it.

There is a wealth of other features awaiting your discovery. For example, I discovered I could explore 3-D representations of the mountains surrounding Tucson. The visible shrubbery appears to be from satellite imagery as well. I can image great educational opportunities for young and old alike. You can also take a look at 3-D representations of the skyscrapers in some cities, read summary descriptions about interesting locations, and overlay layers of information specific to your interests.

There are a few flaws in the program (I need to explore the program further to determine if these are actual flaws or just me not knowing exactly how to proceed.) One example is the driving direction flythrough. If you stop the flythrough before your destination, Google Earth will jump back to the beginning of your trip when you press play again. There does not appears to be a way to resume the flythrough from where you left off. The flythrough can be a little nauseating, too, especially if there are a lot of turns. Also, the speed of the flythrough can be faster than the program is able to load images. Fortunately, you can change the speed in the program’s options.

You will need a fast computer, a good graphics card, and a broadband Internet connection to use Google Earth. Now that more people use broadband than dial-up services, it appears the interactive World Wide Web is here to stay. Google Earth is free, but there are two versions for sale that offer even higher resolution surface images and additional features. A commercial version runs $400 a year but appears to be packed with features that may be well worth the price.

Future Speculation

As technology improves, broadband connections increase in speed, and graphics cards yield more and more reality-like graphic, it is not hard to image future version of Google Earth. The next step will be higher resolution images that are more regularly updated, enhanced 3-D effects, and new layers of detail that include current weather and other global metrics. Soon after that will come a version with high resolution video overlaying the 3-D globe. This could become a useful tool for keeping tabs on current traffic before you leave for work, tracking animal migration patterns, or pretending you live in a foreign city.

Beyond that, we get into the science fiction imaginings of Neal Stephenson in his book Snow Crash. If you haven’t read the book yet, consider it a must read. Pay attention to the “Metaverse” and imagine what Google Earth could become in just a few years.

Personally, I am looking forward to Google Mars and Google Titan.

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Lake-Like Feature Sighted on Titan

Scientists examining recent images of the surface of Titan have discovered a feature that resembles a lake. The feature is near persistent methane clouds and the smoothness of its boundaries suggests shorelines, but it could instead be a dry lake bed, a depression filled with solid hydrocarbons “snowing” out of the atmosphere, or a tectonic-related landform. Similar dark features in the region suggest common processes at work. Future observations by the Cassini space probe will attempt to detect reflections on the surfaces of these features that could determine whether or not they contain liquid.

The region in which the landform was discovered is near Titan’s southern pole (the red cross in the lower center of the image.) The bright white objects in the lower right quadrant of the image are methane clouds that persist through southern summer. NASA also released a time-lapse movie of the region showing movement of these clouds.

Images returned by the Cassini space probe have provided tantalizing evidence for active processes currently at work on the surface of Titan, making it the most Earth-like body in the solar system. Image resolution is hampered by Titan’s thick nitrogen-methane atmosphere, however, and scientists often combine several images of the same region to tease out greater detail. This adds lengthy procedures to an already lengthy process that turns raw images returned by Cassini into image products ready for scientific analysis.

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It’s Okay

It’s okay to send a teenager against his will to be cured of his homosexuality. It’s okay to process animals through “rendering plants” if they are “unfit for human consumption.” It’s okay to seize someone’s home against their will if it’s in the public good.

Yes, I use to wish that my homosexuality could be cured, sometimes I eat meat without thinking about how animals are processed, and I have stolen in the past.

And none of it is okay.

Astronomers Discover First Rocky Exoplanet

Astronomers announced today the possible discovery of a rocky planet only twice as wide and seven and a half times as massive as the Earth orbiting a small red dwarf star about 15 light years away. Paul Butler from the Carnegie Institute of Washington, Geoffrey Marcy from the University of California, Berkeley, Jack Lissauer of NASA/Ames Research Center, and Eugenio J. Rivera of the University of California Observatories/Lick Observatory at UC Santa Cruz provided details about the discovery in a press conference held today at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia. Any similarity with the Earth ends with its size and mass. Conditions on the planet are probably hot (approximately 200 to 400 degrees Celsius) because it orbits only 2 million miles from its parent star, Gliese 876. That is much closer than Mercury orbits our own Sun. Because of the planet’s size and closeness to its parent star, it is not likely a gas giant but instead a rocky world similar to the composition of the terrestrial planets in our own solar system.

Two other planets have previously been discovered in the system, including a gas giant twice as large and another half as large as Jupiter. The planets were discovered by carefully measuring the wobble of the parent star and determining what other gravitational bodies must be present in the system to create that wobble. No direct images have been taken. Technology to be developed over the next decade or longer could eventually lead to snapshots of exoplanets as small as the Earth.

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Titan Ice Volcano?

Titan may harbor “ice volcanoes” and scientists have presented evidence for a likely candidate in the June 9 issue of Nature. Several images of the possible volcano were released to the Internet today by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Ice volcanoes may explain the high level of methane present in Titan’s atmosphere. Methane generally breaks down over a relatively short period of time. Scientists presume some active process keeps high levels of methane in the atmosphere but are unsure which process is at work. Oceans or lakes of liquid methane have previously been proposed as an explanation but neither the Cassini space probe nor the Huygens lander has detected them. The alternative? Ice volcanoes, also known as cryovolcanoes.

Images taken by Cassini using various wavelengths of light suggest a circular surface feature northeast of the Huygens probe landing site. Various compositional layers superimposed on each other may indicate different flows from the volcano. However, any “lava” deposits would be made of methane-ice mixtures, perhaps with other hydrocarbons and ammonia mixed in. Internal heating may provide enough melting to allow eruption of this material onto the moon’s surface.

Future Cassini flybys should help clarify the situation. Cassini is currently focusing on Saturn’s rings, but will return to closer inspection of Saturn’s moons in July.

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