There are some fantastic web apps made for Google Chrome, thanks to the Chrome team’s dedication to showing off the power of web apps in their browser. We recently took a look at the new Chrome Legos, and 100,000 Stars is another great Chrome app that’s recently come out, fresh from the minds of the Google Data Arts Team.
It’s an interactive visualization of the stars in our “neighborhood” of the universe, and it’s an incredibly humbling and beautiful experience. You don’t have to use Chrome to run it, either — I had some success with the latest version of Firefox, and any browser that supports WebGL should be able to run it.
As the name suggests, 100,000 Stars features a lot of stars. 119,617 of them, to be precise. Of these, 87 are identified and labelled. You can click on a star’s name to zoom in to a close-up view of that star and bring up a description from Wikipedia. This description floats on the left side of the screen in partially-transparent and fully marked-up HTML.
You can click through to the Wikipedia page for more information, or follow one of the many hyperlinks contained in most descriptions to learn more about astronomy. Using Wikipedia for descriptions strikes me as a good decision — you get crowdsourced, regularly-updated and edited information that in the case of astronomy is written in a relatively accessible style where it’s easy to lookup terms you don’t recognize.
We humans are curious by nature; we have looked to the stars in our night sky for thousands of years, wondering what secrets they hold. 100,000 Stars is all about sating and stimulating that curiosity. It encourages you to wander around Wikipedia just as much as it does its own interactive map of a section of the Universe. You can zoom in and out with the mouse wheel or trackpad and pan with a simple click and drag. Panning in this context basically means spinning around whatever the current point of reference is — either the last-selected star or our sun.
The map is presented with guidelines and an origin at our sun to help people gauge rough distances and angles between stars, and the scale on which we exist (The “tiny blue dot set in a sunbeam” so eloquently described by the late astronomer Carl Sagan). These lines fade in and out constantly, making what appears to be a static image feel more dynamic.
If you want or need more context for the enormity of space and the many stars featured here, there’s a neat tour that you can activate at any time. This tour starts you at the sun and then zooms out in progressive stages, each time explaining a key component of what you’re seeing. It’s beautifully presented, and gives a great sense of the scope of the universe — which is many many times more massive than that which is shown even in 100,000 Stars.
Right next to the Take A Tour button, there’s another button for showing the Spectral Index. This displays a spectrum that shows the range of temperatures of stars, and how these correspond to their color. At the coolest end — a mere 3,480 Kelvin (3,566,85°C/6,452.33°F) — the stars are a vivid red. The hottest stars are blue or violet, at around 42,000 Kelvin (41,726.85°C/75,140.33°F). The stars on show really cover the full spectrum, and at certain zoom levels your screen is filled with dots of varying shades of red, yellow, blue, and white. Quickly zooming through the layers feels like a mix of looking through a kaleidoscope and watching the light tunnel sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Listen to the Fans Roar
100,000 Stars offers fairly slick presentation — certainly in relation to other web apps — but it pushes your computer hard. Rendering all those pixels in real-time, according to some approximations of the gravitational laws affecting them, takes its toll on your CPU and GPU. Zoom in and listen as your computer fans roar into action. I had no trouble running the simulation on a 2007 iMac, but it eats up enough processor time that you might like to pause any video editing or other processor-intensive tasks going on in the background.
I found the noise of my fans actually provided an interesting ambience to add to the mysterious music (which loops a little too quickly), but it’s not the most appropriate way to explore the cosmos.
Intergalactic Travellers Beware
While the majority of the data is based on or derived from current scientific data, 100,000 Stars makes no claims to accuracy. It’s an experiment, worked on by space enthusiasts at Google in their spare time. The developers include a funny warning not to use the visualization for interstellar navigation, but others should note that it’s not a reliable source for study of the Solar System. Use it to explore, to learn about the stars in our solar system, and to be inspired.
100,000 Stars is one of the coolest web apps I’ve ever seen. It makes you want to explore the universe, unravelling its mysteries and discovering more of the millions of stars that litter our night sky. It’s also a great advertisement for Chrome browser — particularly the Chrome Experiments initiative. But most importantly it’s a stunning and accessible visualization of the immensity of our “neighborhood” in the universe.