Microsoft on Tuesday released an inspiring new tool for investigating space using imagery from the best ground- and space-based observatories around the world. Dubbed WorldWide Telescope, this new tool is free and combines Web services with a local Windows application to provide an amazing experience.

"The WorldWide Telescope is a powerful tool for science and education that makes it possible for everyone to explore the universe," says Microsoft chairman Bill Gates. "By combining terabytes of incredible imagery and data with easy-to-use software for viewing and moving through all that information, the WorldWide Telescope opens the door to new ways to see and experience the wonders of space. Our hope is that it will inspire young people to explore astronomy and science, and help researchers in their quest to better understand the universe."

WorldWide Telescope makes it possible to pan and zoom around the known galaxy using high-resolution imagery. The software provides a realistic sense of the size and scope of outer space, so that when you switch from one celestial body to the next, the view pans and zooms accordingly. WorldWide Telescope includes views of constellations; planets in the solar system; images from the Hubble, Chandra, and Spitzer telescopes; sky surveys, guided tours, and more.

WorldWide Telescope was started years ago by Microsoft senior researcher Jim Gray, who was sadly lost at sea last year. Microsoft says it has released WorldWide Telescope as a service free of charge to the astronomy and education communities "as a tribute to Gray with the hope that it will inspire and empower kids of all ages to explore and understand the universe in an unprecedented way."

WorldWide Telescope requires Windows XP with Service Pack 2 or Vista. For more information and the free download, please visit the WorldWide Telescope Web site.