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Space travel at the click of a button

Have you already planned you vacation trip? If not, maybe you should consider taking a ride along the solar system! Virtually, the possibility is real – thanks to a new tool released by Nasa that offers 3D navigation through the immensity of our cosmic habitat.

Are you up for a ride through the solar system? Fasten your seatbelt, and welcome aboard the Eyes on the Solar System – an online tool that allows you to explore the cosmos from the comfort of your chair.

The new toy is a sort of virtual spacecraft. All you have to do is get on – that is, go to the website and download a simple plugin – and you’ll be ready to enjoy an incredible trip into the mysteries of outer space. An attractive, easy to use 3D interface guarantees an authentic spaceflight experience.
Planets, moons, asteroids and even spacecraft. You can have a close look at all of these in real time. Also you can check out what the solar system looks like at this very moment. If you fancy it, you can even travel in time, and visit any spot between 1950 and 2050.
In clear and accessible language, text boxes help you make sense of what you are seeing. There are also plenty of external links providing you with a virtual mine of information. In the end, it may turn out as a real, efficient astronomy class!


Space tourism

One of the most exciting rides is ‘Comets, asteroids and near-Earth objects’, in which, helped along by videos, animations, photographs and even narration, you follow the asteroid 2008 TC3, as it hurtles towards the Earth and explodes 37 km over the Nubian desert, showering northern Sudan with its fragments.
Another good choice is visiting Saturn. Or maybe, if you have the time, drop by Uranus, where you’ll be able to see the oddity of a planet whose equator is almost perpendicular to its orbital plane.
It’s also worth taking a look at the dozens of spacecraft Nasa has launched over the past decades. In the end, you’ll find that between the Sun and Saturn there are literally hundreds of places to stop and stare.

Expanding app

Nasa launched Eyes on the Solar System late in 2010, after 18 months of planning and work. It’s still a beta version, with adjustments and improvements constantly being added.
“Development is ongoing and we are improving the application and adding more content all the time”, told Science Caffe Kevin Hussel, manager of visualization technology applications at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. According to the Nasa team, “the app is expanding, just like the universe”.
When it comes to apps of this type, Nasa has a good track record: for example, Cassie (an incredible app to share the Cassini experience) and the Eyes on the Earth (which allows us to take an outstanding tour of Earth’s artificial satellites).
“Our management asked if we could roll out the same idea across the whole solar system, and so the Eyes on the Solar System was born”.

Great! But is it diffucult to use?

Not at all. You don’t need to be a geek or an expert to surf the solar system. The interface is very intuitive, and a few minutes of training will be enough for you to master the task. “By the way, school children seem to get the hang of it very, very quickly”, adds Hussey.
The Brazilian physicist Cláudia Rodrigues, of the Astrophysics Division of the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), sees in the Eyes on the Solar System an interesting learning tool. “People who are simply curious can use it for learning, whereas professionals can use it for teaching.”
The astronomer Francisco Jablonski, also from INPE, agrees. “In books, that is, on paper, one tends to visualize the solar system as if it were all on one level, which is not the case. The layman will benefit from seeing it as a three-dimensional collection of orbits.”
Improvements are on the way. In the coming months, the Nasa team intends to boost the tool by including missions to Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, as well as allowing the observation of certain exoplanets (those outside the solar system).
According to Hussey, the major difficulty so far has been keeping the interface simple. “The hardest thing is balance between complexity and detail, and accessibility and ease of use. Now we’re working on making the app more attractive and accessible to the general public”, says Hussey.
‘It’s a rich exploration tool for the enthusiasts, and a library of immersive experiences for everyone.”

Part of the solar system seen from near Earth, in a screenshot from the app Eyes on the Solar System, recently released by Nasa. “We’ve already had more than 100 thousand visits”, smiles Kevin Hussey, one of the tool’s creators.
Spacecraft seen in a screenshot of the Eyes on the Solar System. “The estimated cost to date has been close to a million dollars”, says Hussey. “Is it too expensive?  We don't think so. After public demonstrations, we've been told by many taxpaying members of our general public that ‘Eyes’ is a great value for their tax dollars.”
Image of the spacecraft Epoxi in its mission to observe the comet Hartley 2.
Image of Epoxi. Text boxes provide additional information and external links.
The solar system as it was at 16:08 on the 22nd of July 2011. By accessing the tool, you can check what it looks like right now!
By Henrique Kugler

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