Google Sky

By Phil Plait | August 22, 2007 10:05 am

When Google Earth came out, one of my first thoughts was how cool it would be to have an application like this for the sky. Google Earth is massively useful, and a planetarium app would be too.

Well, today, Google has released a version of Google Earth that maps the sky.

I don’t like it.

You read that right. I don’t like it. Well, to be clear, I don’t like it yet. I think this version is lacking some basic necessities, but once they (and some tweaks) are added this will be a pretty cool app.

For one thing, when I clicked the button to start it, it said it was loading the sky above my current location. However, it doesn’t tell me what that current location is. It doesn’t tell me what time of day it’s using — the sky moves, so time is crucial. It doesn’t move the sky in real time (or provide that option). It doesn’t tell me if the Sun is up or not. It doesn’t tell me where the horizon is.

These are all relatively simple things to put in, and I’m sure Google will install them eventually. But it seems odd not to have them available in the first release version.

There are some oddities. When I click on, for example, the Owl Nebula (a classic planetary nebula in Ursa Major) it displays an almost illegible image of the object. The description is fine, but the icon says it’s a globular cluster! Oops. That was the first image I clicked. How many more are there like that?

The red dots marking objects tend to actually cover the objects, making it hard to see them (in the Crab Nebula it covers the pulsar, so I can’t see it without making the dot disappear, and it’s not obvious how to do that). It’s not obvious how to zoom in and out (turns out it’s by double left and right clicking, but I found that by accident — that must be a feature of Google Earth in general I didn’t know about).

In the search box, if I type in my home address and go there, it sends me to a location in the constellation of Auriga. I suspect that’s what is directly overhead right now, but it doesn’t say!

There are some nice things, of course. Lots of objects from Hubble are integrated into the maps, for one, as are images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (some odd image artifacts got in as well that should have been cleaned up, for that matter). The star maps are not bad, though patchy in spots. There are ctalogs of objects as different layers, which is useful. Zooming in and out is too slow for my taste (I’m impatient) but the way the stars appear and fade during zooming is nice, and that’s not easy to program so I’m impressed with how they did it.

But still, I’m scratching my head over why they left out so many obvious and necessary features in the first release. I think Google Sky can be a great tool, I really do, but to be a useful planetarium app it needs work. The enormous benefit of Google Earth is twofold: it allows you to interactively examine the Earth, and it allows people to add homemade features to it if they know how to code them or where to find them.

Interactively examining the sky is nice, but Google Sky needs work. It’s more of a gee-whiz photo album than a real piece of interactive software. IMO most folks will play with it for a few minutes and then stop using it, since at the moment it isn’t much more than a clickable way to look at objects on the sky. Once real interactivity is built into it — a way to see what’s up now, or tomorrow night, or on my trip to Alaska at 2:00 a.m. — it will begin to realize its potential.

Imagine if users can add their own images, for example. Or it displays satellite tracks in the sky, or where deep space probes are, or where Hubble is pointed right now, or where Jupiter will be in October. Google Sky will be an incredibly cool tool and will have real staying power… but it needs some more basics first. Until then, I’d rather go straight to the Hubble site to view images, and if I want to know what’s up now, I’d rather use some free apps to map the sky.

C’mon, Google folks! I know how smart you are! Get this rolling. Add these basic features, and you’ll find people using this software in droves. And you can add me to that list.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Piece of mind

Comments (81)

  1. Michael

    Shutting off the layers got rid of the dots, and then it was fun to zoom in on the Crab Nebula (especially if you recite ‘Space, the final frontier’ as you zoom). But there are definitely bugs the system. At a certain zoom level I get pushpins for the ‘Chicago River’, ‘Canadian Supreme Court’, ;’Manhatten Island’ and ‘Google Campus’ right in the middle of Perseus and Auriga. I’m not sure, but I don’t think that’s quite right….

  2. Also on the list of tweaks: a hobbyist planetarium version ported to iPhone. They did it for maps, and I’m more likely to have my iPhone with me out in the field than I am to have my computer.

  3. I had the same thought the first day I downloaded GoogleEarth. I just got a news release email about GoogleSky. After I downloaded it my next thought was to make sure that you were aware of it. For a split second I thought I would “scoop” you on this one. It is KEWL!

  4. Navneeth

    [i]the sky moves…[/i]

    Now, that’s bad astronomy. 😛

  5. Navneeth

    Actually, when I was first saw the news (not the content, but just the headlines) at the GE Blog, I was expecting more like looking at the sky from your location on terra firma, and not go to “another google dimension” to look at the sky.

  6. i’m unable to run stellarium properly on my vista laptop and it’s really hard to see the sky in my corner of the world. i was hoping to be able to produce a preview of this month’s lunar eclipse, just in case the sky wasn’t clear enough to see it but i wasn’t able to.

    but, as you say, i’m sure soon enough it’ll be loaded with features.

  7. Jeremy

    Phil, be sure you email google about these issues. They are fairly responsive about making changes like the ones you suggest.

  8. Stephen

    In a sense they’re reinventing the wheel. Everything you describe is in Stellarium (, which still could use some tweaking, but is far more polished.

  9. Clayton


    Thanks for letting us know what this looks like. I too saw the announcements, but have not had time to try it.

    Sometime when you have the time, perhaps you could give your thoughts on planetarium software in general. I like Stellarium myself, but hear good things about several of the others as well. My interests are more towards educations, using the planetarium software for astronomy outreach. As Google earth is well known, it has the potential to be very good at introducing the general public to the night sky.

  10. I agree with Stephen–Stellarium is great!

  11. Jake Bullet

    [quote]When I click on, for example, the Owl Nebula (a classic planetary nebula in Ursa Major) it displays an almost illegible image of the object. The description is fine, but the icon says it’s a globular cluster! [/quote]

    The danger might be that people are believing google so in the next few years be prepared for someone claiming that the Owl Nebula is a globular cluster and calling others stupid because they are wrong… :(

  12. Kullat Nunu

    The red dots marking objects tend to actually cover the objects, making it hard to see them…

    Perhaps the dots were designed by the same person who decided to merge the Wikipedia/Panoramio/fearured posts layers into one “Geographic Web” layer and replaced the nice icons with ugly small dots…

    There are some nice things, of course. Lots of objects from Hubble are integrated into the maps, for one, as are images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (some odd image artifacts got in as well that should have been cleaned up, for that matter).

    Cleaning up SDSS data would need major work.

    Zooming in and out is too slow for my taste…

    Zooming speed can be set from the settings.

    One thing that irritates me is the lack of a scale bar. Normal GE has it, why the sky can’t have one?

    I must say that GE makes browsing SDSS and DSS data much easier than before and embedded HST images are great. Hopefully data from other sources will be added eventually.

    The product has great potential, but it is clearly intended for casual browser and is not very useful for a person who actually observes the sky (after all, there are plenty of real planetarium programs). Still, I can’t say I dislike it. Some planetarium programs have the ability to view actual sky survey photographs, but I don’t think any of them have integrated them as well as Google Earth. Zooming into very large Hubble photos is very easy.

  13. Quiet_Desperation

    Uh, Phil, there’s like 9000 planetarium programs for every OS out there.

    I wrote a simple one back in the days of my Atari 800. Never got very good because this was the pre-public Internat days (and I was just a kid), so I have no easy access to a file with start coordinates down to, say, Mag +6. It wound up being more of a planet finder.

  14. Jamie

    I think I will stick with Stary Night, it seems to work perfectly for what I do with it.

  15. I guess some of these quirks are what you get in Version One of a piece of software. I noticed some of the same oddities in my first review today at my news blog ( ). I also got to wondering (at ) whether this might actually be another nail in the coffin of amateur astronomy. You know, like where you actually go outside to view these fuzzy objects.


  16. There are at least 3 different ways to zoom in and out. You don’t have to just double click, you can use the mouse wheel, or you can hold down the right mouse button and move the mouse up or down. Also I think you can hold down Ctrl + up/down.

  17. Phil,

    I think you and the others have not realized that it’s not geared for us. It’s for the public who have no knowledge of the sky, stars, or astronomy and want to have fun.

    I wrote a small thing about it for my club’s blog this morning, and mentioned that the should “start exploring space. And once you do that, go out and see what the real stars look like (which we do at our observatory).”

    I think it’s fine for the uninitiated, and it’s up to us to instruct them further.

  18. spacewriter


    I actually rather like this GoogleApp and I think it will get better as they build in more functionality. There’s been a HUGE amount of work go into it already, work that is non-trivial.

    But, from the standpoint of folks who don’t have access to all those fancy planetarium programs (even the free ones), this is an amazing leap into the cosmos. Let’s not forget that not everybody has our “jadedness” about exploring the sky using a desktop.

    Again, however, I do agree with you that this thing needs more features and I’m sure they’ll come. For one, I want it to work with my 3dConnexion interface “knob” — it doesn’t yet, but it will.

  19. Halidai

    As a Mac user, I’ll stick with Celestia. Google’s programs are at best clunky in their Macintosh incarnations, and Celestia just plain kicks butt.

  20. Seconded on Celestia (

    Best moments:
    *discovering they have extrasolar planets mapped
    *using a script to fly past the Earth at the (non-relativistic) speed of light, and seeing just how “slow” light actually is

  21. kvenlander

    I think the main reason they released this as version 1.0 is that this way they (again) beat Microsoft, who are supposedly working on their own online version (which incidentally won’t be named anything simple like Google Sky, but more like Microsoft Windows Live Virtual Spatial Objects Ultimate).

  22. Tablamanium

    Your current location is set while viewing the earth.

    ‘Fly’ to a specific place and then select ‘make this my start location’

    The time is displayed in the ‘time window’, the ruler thingie near the top that allows you to select periods to be animated.

    Just set both sliders to the same date/time to select a specific time.

  23. I heard for quite a while that Google Sky is coming including from Space Telescope’s guys and I expected something more impressive than what I saw today. Lack of details, news claims Google reveals 200M galaxies with Goggle Sky, it was a joke right? Many basic catalogs are not supported. By some reason Goggle decided cover over DSS2 by SDSS where SDSS is available and there’re no way to turn off SDSS. The poles are complete mess. Try to find Polaris.

    [quote]Imagine if users can add their own images, for example[/quote]

    The feature supported by SKY-MAP.ORG. Look at Astro photo survey at
    Any one can upload and match own photography that immediately will be included into the survey.

  24. Hey guys, I found a piece of space that looks remarkably like Earth!

    what do you think? 😛

  25. While I understand this is for beginners, and that it’s a new release, I stand by my WTF moment when it won’t tell me basic stuff about the sky. As it stands, this is software for looking at Hubble pictures and not much more.

    I also understand it will be improved, and that people will add APIs to it as time goes on. But it still doesn’t make sense that they would release this with such fanfare (I got *4* press releases) and have it lack the most basic things that even a beginner would want.

  26. Well those of us on the software side of things in astronomy haven’t quite grasped exactly what Google Sky means yet, but most of us have figured out that the world has changed. Unlike the professional GIS community astronomers have a long history of the general public looking over our shoulders as we work, so one thing that isn’t going to surprise us is user generated content, and as far as I can see that is what Google Sky is going to give us. Every astronomer and their dog, professional or otherwise, is going to start publishing their data in KML format.

    Of course we’re in the middle of revolution in professional astronomy with the virtual observatory finally beginning to bear its first fruit. The arrival of Google Sky isn’t really a coincidence, but it is well timed. The quick mashups I talk about on my blog are really only possible because of that timing. Google has given the IVOA another standard, and that’s KML.

  27. I guess it’s a good start, but why use a computer when you can use the real sky. A SkyScout does exactly that. Check out and you’ll see what I mean.

  28. Troy

    Reminds me of the myth where Apollo’s son Phaeton got the privledge to drive his father’s chariot, but due to his inexperience the horses went berserk and he totally scorched the earth. If you aren’t prepared messes follow. Google earth is pretty cool though.

  29. Clayton


    You must live somewhere where you can actually see the stars. Where I am (LA area) we are lucky to be able to see Jupiter and Venus, anything else is washed out by the light pollution. For us, the planetarium software is helpful to get kids interested enough to want to drive two hours the where they can see the stars.

  30. As I pointed out in my entry, the real potential of this app will surface when 1) basic planetarium features are added, and 2) people add their own work to it.

  31. snabald

    It seems the beta testers of google sky found the horizon confusing.

  32. KaiYeves

    I’ve got Google Earth somewhere on this computer, and I think I’ll get the upgrade, warts and all. By the way, with some web searching, you can get a layer that shows all of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Also, if you search ‘Arecibo Radio Telescope’ on Google Earth, you get nothing. Is it too small? One of my first thoughts when I got GE was whether or not they could add in other planets. I mean, Encarta gives you a pretty detailed model of the moon, and we’ve got pretty full maps of Mars and Venus from observer probes, too, so would this be possible?

  33. mitchell porter

    What I’d like to see is “3D Sky” (move through the universe) or even “4D Sky” (move through time as well). 😉

  34. Steve McIntosh

    Stranger are the omissions. Try finding the Pleiades. It gives you the “Southern Pleiades” but not M 45. In fact, you can’t find M 45 either. It’s there – go to the ra/dec and you’ll find it, but it’s nowhere near the resolution of the Hubble images.

  35. andy

    I’ll stick with Celestia I think.

  36. Adam Simmons

    I do agree…Google does tend to leave alot out of their bulk releases; but they have a tendency to build on the pubic introducing software so users can get used to the program while they work on improving it. Google works on customer feedback more so that other software companies. Its good to let them know what you think.

    In addition i recommend trying NASA Whirlwind…Its a very good program that rivals Google Earth. It s manipluation on time and its perspective towards nature based imagery is much better than Google. The program can import google based files and imagery from multiple servers. There are some downsides in its interface capabilites but the program is still in its infancy. Another great aspect is that its completly free, made by NASA to help better educate the public. Im sure inspiration for Google to do better in their astronomy based imagery will become better as NASA brings their program up to speed in competition.

  37. Alan B.


    For Arecibo, type in the coordinates (+18° 20′ 39.00″, -66° 45′ 10.00″). For the moon, go to For Mars,

  38. Walabio

    Unfortunately, GoogleSky is an 1.0. In the meantime, try Stellarim and Celestia:

    Stellarium and Celestia work great on your MacIntosh. It would be nice to integrate these applications so that they would be on application like the for pat Starry Night, but for free, they are great.

  39. Ray Reardon

    Got to agree on the google try but have you or anyone tried Celestia. I enjoy it and it seems to have solved some of the problems you mentioned. Serious astronomy or fantasy it handles it both.

  40. TTTTTT

    Yeah, I do agree that this has some shortcomings still. Not really great as a planetarium, but kind of fun to explore the full sky.
    Just be aware the Microsoft is going to attack with their own version.

  41. how to download google sky software please guide me thanx

  42. KaiYeves

    Thanks, Alan B. I can even see the three cables on the antenna-thing! The moon won’t load, but Mars looks really cool. Valles Marineris is preeeeeeeeety…

  43. bigjohn

    GoogleSky should be version 0.1. It’s a nice start but it just doesn’t feel finished yet. I sure hope they keep on going with it and make it as good as some of their other stuff is.

  44. Arif,
    Google Sky is part of the Google Earth that can be downloaded here:

  45. Luisa

    Did anyone else notice that it gives coordinates of Dec first, then RA?

  46. Given that Google is all about Web2.0, who needs them to tweak it? I’m sure plenty of people will create cool apps that rely on the tool and come up with far more interesting and effective uses…

  47. Matt Bland

    Has anyone else tried looking at Polaris?
    The clunky way the photos/textures are mapped at the poles makes it horrible to use.

    I hope they fix that soon.

  48. Now that I’ve downloaded this new version, I can’t open the program. It stalls at loading the layers. I’ve tried uninstalling and reloading same issue. I don’t have an older version so now I can’t use it at all. Any help out there?


  49. Victoria

    Ok right when I read about google sky I had to download it. I spent hours playing with it. I think that some of the graphics are not that great but hey it is version 1. My big problem was that behind “Gemini” right near NGC 2281, zoom in and you will see two blue beams. They are not labeled and in the beams there are two large pods of some sort but here is the kicker just above these beams there are 3 large blackouts and another one inbetween Gemini and Auriga. The 1st one I found looked like the beam was coming right from the blacked out spot. I was just curious on why the whole sky has some sort of light coming through but those 4 spots. I just thought this was interesting and wanted to share the info. If you know anything about this email me at Later, Victoria

  50. Victoria

    OH yeah the one beam is aimed directly at 62 Aur.

  51. Victoria

    And you can get to 62 Aur by checking the backyard astronomy.

  52. Victoria

    Guess what ABC news said, “10 billion light-years away there is a large empty black space and it is 1 billion light years across of emptiness, one astronomer called it a freak of nature.” Well I found it and it is right near the Eskimo Nebula and the 56 Gem. Well there are more… are they going to find them to? Well here are the locations of the other four… 1. NGC 2266, HD 45504, and NGC 2248 the space is between these. 2. In the center of NGC 2192, HD 47270, HD 41467. 3. To the right of NGC 2281 (again this is the blue beam). 4. Directly below HD 50420. (Another blue beam). I don’t know what the deal is but I thought it was so cool.

  53. Victoria

    There is another one above the Messier 37 that could also be the one ABC was talking about. Hmm just a thought.

  54. Victoria

    Above HD 33203… I am starting to think that these are space junk or something is wrong with the cam.

  55. Ian

    I agree with the person who notes they probably dropped this early to beat MSFT. I alos agree it is kinda neat, but quite cheesy and a bit sloppy in execution.

  56. Victoria

    I been doing a little research and the Beams may be Aurigids. Since they will be here by the end of the month.

  57. ferdy

    Saya menjadi lebih banyak mengetahui tentang alam sekitar,…..terima kasih.

  58. Crapist program in the world!!!!!!!!!!@@@@@@@

  59. i like to sniff my own ass

  60. hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii

  61. im a nerd

  62. Ry


    More polished but google is now set on taking over the universe, so they will probably gobble up stellarium.

  63. Robert Carnegie

    I came here tonight because I read about the vast empty hole in space and I expected to find Dr Plait looking into it. (Boom-boom!)

  64. If you want a good interactive surface mapping program, use Google Earth, but if you want a good sky/space mapping, stick to software that is made to deal with its innate complexities like Solarium and Celestia.

  65. Interesting comments.

    First, many of the software programs you state, do not have actual sky data in them. They are, like planetarium data, a representation of the sky taken from catalog data or fabricated. Sky in Google Earth has real astronomical data. It took several years to obtain the SLOAN data and the Digitized Sky survey occurred only once.

    Earth Scientists have all kinds of orbiting satellites. Landsat has been taking data of the planet for 30 years. Give us 30 years of continuous sky coverage with fleets of satellites and we will be able to bring you the same sort of nearly perfect sky data as you see on earth. OR…. use simulated data like the other programs if pretty is all you want. Hubble cannot possibly cover the sky at its native resolution even ONE TIME in 30 years.

    We have an angular sky scale offered by my group at Space Telescope.
    You can indeed add images using open source software, but stay tuned to the Space Telescope website, we will have something easy for you to use soon.

  66. […] You can indeed add images using open source software, but stay tuned to the Space Telescope website[…]

  67. What I’d like to see is “3D Sky” (move through the universe) or even “4D Sky” (move through time as well).

  68. Google Sky is a charming addition to Google’s league of mapping web apps. Integration with Google Earth just made it all better. Here is some more info –

  69. mp3

    What I’d like to see is “3D Sky” (move through the universe) or even “4D Sky” (move through time as well).

  70. NASA Dude

    The software is called Stellarium not Solarium, and it is great. I just wanted to correct the comment b/c I found this page via Google and had a hard time finding the correct site. So this is for those who might mispell the software the same way Aaron and I did.

  71. Paul Schoe

    On Stephen’s advice I installed Stellarium and it is doing eactly what I had epected Google Sky to do. it allows me to define a location and a time and it shows me the stars, constellations and planets that I can see at that moment.

    Maybe Stellarium is for simple star-gazers like me and Google is throwing in 100+ other tools for the people who want to know more. But for me Stellarium is doing exactly what I like: showing and naming what I can see on a given bright night.


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