2007/08/22

The Birth of GoogleSky

The 15th annual ADASS conference was held in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain from 2-5 Oct. I attended as part of MAST and NVO. I usually enjoy ADASS very much since I get exposed to technology and technological solutions to astronomical problems that in some cases are really revolutionary. However, I was not prepared for what ADASS had to "offer".

Coming home from dinner one evening, I wanted to verify that there was a ping-pong table :) I did, but I was distracted on the way to play by a software running on some of the Windows computers located throughout the hotel. I remember stopping over the shoulder of an italian collegue (Antonio Volpicelli) and asking him what were those "maps".

I was looking for the first time at Google-Earth (GE). I quickly grabbed another computer, installed GE and started a long, long night. GE has just been released a few months before and I have to confess I did not pay any attention to it.
O n that night I was simply unable to stop browing Earth! That night is when this all started!!!

I came home from ADASS determined to know as much as possible about GE, but also to see if there was anything I could do to convince Google to turn their view upward: I wanted GoogleSky.
In January 2006, I started an email campaign to find who, among my friends, could put me in contact with someone at Google. Andreas Berlind provided the most reliable lead and it turned out to be a great lead!

On Feb 7th, 2006 I wrote the following email to John Hanke (now Director of Google Earth & Maps):
From: Alberto Conti [Space Telescope Science Institute]
Date: February 7, 2006 5:53:56 PM EST
To: John Hanke [Google]
Subject: GoogleSky

Dear Dr Hanke,

my name is Alberto Conti and I am an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). I am in charge of a group of 18 astronomers and developers that produce some of the most widely used software for the astronomical community. I have been inspired by many of Google's products and technologies for some time now, and I'd like to propose to you a direct collaboration between Google and the Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates the Hubble Space Telescope.

As you are probably well aware, the Hubble Space Telescope is the second most important telescope in the history of mankind (the first being Galileo's). Hubble is, by far, the most successful observatory in human history. Over the last 10 years, Hubble has captivated the hearts and minds of scientists and non-scientists alike, by gathering the most striking, insightful and scientifically valuable data for astronomers and the most breath-taking images for the public.

Hubble will not last forever, and while part of its legacy will be carried on by the James Webb Space Telescope, most of its magic is destined to fade if proper actions are not taken.

The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD is not only the repository for Hubble data, but hosts in its Multi-Mission Archive, data from visible and ultraviolet satellites and missions. The entire astronomical community is really a vast chaotic repository of panchromatic data of our own universe. We have hundreds of Terabytes of images and spectra; we have catalogs of billions of galaxies, billions of stars, hundreds of extra solar planet and data from the most distant and most powerful objects in the universe. In a few years telescopes like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will image the entire sky every 3 nights over and over again, dumping precious information about our galactic neighborhood at a rate of a few Terabytes a night.

We have the universe at our fingertip and yet no way to search it effectively to enable new science or to even share it with the public!

Google Earth has revolutionized how each one of us looks at our planet. I would like to help revolutionize astronomy, both for astronomers and the public. I'd like to make use of Google Earth's technology to create Google Sky: an open window on our Universe.
Furthermore, since most of the astronomical data is publicly available, one can envision Google Sky being able to map the entire sky: from nearby planets to far away galaxies.

The Universe is just a large, complex, beautiful database ready to be mined. The Space Telescope Science Institute does not have the resources to develop its own Google Sky. What we have is the knowledge about astronomical data that would make a partnership with Google a real success.

Please let me know if such a collaboration might be of interest to Google.

Sincerely,
Alberto Conti

--
Alberto Conti, Ph.D.
Space Telescope Science Institute
Branch Manager
Astronomy Tools and Applications

Needless to say John Hanke did reply immediately. So I decided to nudge him a little...
From: Alberto Conti
Date: February 17, 2006 12:52:59 PM EST
To: Hanke
Subject: Fwd: GoogleSky

Dear Dr Hanke,

a few days ago I send you and email for a possible collaboration
among the Space Telescope Science Institute and Google in a project I
named GoogleSky.

At this time, I'd like to invite you to come and visit the Space
Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore to see what we are all
about, what kind of data we have in house and what we can get access
to. Most importantly, I'd like for you to give a technical colloquium
to our staff (composed of astronomers and developers) on Google Earth
technology and how it's revolutionizing our perception of the planet.

Please let me know at your earliest convenience if you might be
interested in visiting us.


Sincerely,
Alberto Conti
After a few days John did reply:

From: "John Hanke"
Date: February 22, 2006 1:31:41 AM EST
To: "'Alberto Conti'"
Subject: RE: GoogleSky
Reply-To:

Thank you for reaching out. We'd v
ery much like to discuss this
opportunity with you. Give me a few days to coordinate with the team out here.

jh
And after a few more days...

From: "John Hanke"
Date: February 23, 2006 1:41:29 AM ES
T
To: "Alberto Conti" , "Brian McClendon"
Subject: Re: GoogleSky

Alberto,

I want to introduce you to Brian McClendon, Director of Engineering for Google Maps/Local/Earth. Brian was my co-founder and the VP engineering at Keyhole. He is very excited about your proposal and interested in coming out to discuss it further.

jh

So I immediately wrote to Carol Christian, my collaborator at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), and blogged about it. I was simply excited at just the possibility that we could put Hubble and other astronomical images on a GoogleSky client!!! This is really when it all stated. Carol and I have been the force behind GoogleSky at STScI ever since!

As an aside, Carol is technically my boss (but in reality she's just a great friend and a pleasure to work with). She's the Deputy of the Community Missions Office (CMO), the division of Space Telescope that finds "creative solutions and applies expertise from Hubble to new scientific missions and programs", where I also work as a Development Manager. She also directs the education activities of the National Virtual Observatory. Her expertise is in science education, information technologies, user interfaces, and stellar populations in astronomy. She also has experience in Science and Technology Policy. Carol is a member of the American Astronomical Society, is on the Board of Directors for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and serves on the NASA Langley Earth Science Data User Group.... yup a true heavyweight!

In any case, blogging was a mistake, since it got picked up immediately by the search engines: see old post HERE. As a result, instead of emailing me, Brian McClendon simply called me at the office and asked me to remove the post since the word GoogleSky was prominently displayed in my post and this would bring a lot of question about a product that was not even an idea. Fair enough.

A few days later, I attended a National Virtual Observatory meeting together with Carol Christian. At the meeting we showed a KML that had been originally developed by STScI's Frank Summers. Frank had taken the Hubble Press Releases and used the KML GroundOverlay structure to display them in Google Earth. It was the beginning of the realization that KML was versatile and that the Google GUI was malleable enough to be adapted to sky data!
Carol coming from her State Department and Educational background, saw immediately the potential for such an interface as a true revolutionary medium for communicating the beauty of astronomy! I saw this also as a potential vehicle to perhaps enable new science.

At the meeting we met three people that were going to be the Google team at Google Pittsburgh: Andrew Connolly, Ryan Scranton and Simon Krughoff. All three of them are astronomers, but they soon would become interns at Google and start working on GoogleSky.

We would meet them again in Mountain View, CA at Google HQ in a few months to discuss how we all felt the time was right to push and challenge Google to actually invest some time in the development of a sky client.