Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope (WWT) astronomy software has a new institutional home: the American Astronomical Society (AAS). This follows a vote by the Society’s governing board at the 227th AAS meeting in Kissimmee, Florida, earlier this month.

WWT is a scriptable and interactive “universe information system” for exploring the multiwavelength sky. It allows users to retrieve and share data using an interface that resembles either the sky as seen from Earth or a 3D view of the universe. WWT can be run in a browser on any computer or mobile device or in Windows as a desktop application. With its powerful capabilities to visualize and contextualize astronomical data and to create guided tours of the cosmos, WWT is useful for astrophysics researchers, science educators, amateur astronomers, and other enthusiasts.

Curtis Wong and Jonathan Fay led the development of WWT at Microsoft Research, which began distributing the Windows version for free in 2008. The program started gaining traction among professional astronomers following the more recent release of the Web-based version. WWT lets researchers easily compare celestial images and data at different wavelengths, spanning the spectrum from radio waves to gamma rays, on the fly in seconds. It also links journal articles and archived data, enabling users to learn which parts of the sky have been studied when, and why, and by whom, and what they found. “We recently started publishing WWT tour-based abstracts and see WWT as a tool for providing more dynamic and interactive images in our journals,” says Julie Steffen, AAS Director of Publishing.

WWT also can be used to bring context to lesson topics in K-12 education as well as university classes. It can be used in a lecture setting to illustrate a wide variety of astronomy topics — from phases of the Moon to deep surveys of the early universe — and in a lab setting to encourage students to explore on their own and ask questions. Virtually anyone can use WWT to simply browse the universe, exploring everything from planets to nebulas, from supernovas to galaxy clusters, and from constellations to the cosmic microwave background radiation.

Microsoft Research open-sourced WWT in 2015. By assuming responsibility for WWT, the AAS will encourage broad community involvement in the program’s further development. The AAS will lead a federation of individuals and organizations who contribute code, data, and services to the larger WWT ecosystem. GitHub is hosting the WWT code at no cost. Microsoft continues to contribute to the WWT effort by hosting data in its Azure cloud. Most major US observatories are also participating, and a loose governance and review structure will be established, under AAS guidance, in the coming months.

“Taking on leadership of the WWT effort is a bold step by the AAS,” says Executive Officer Kevin B. Marvel. “We’re making a commitment to use and adapt new technologies in our stated mission ‘to enhance and share humanity’s scientific understanding of the universe.’ The fact that WWT will be developed and guided by the broader community of astronomers will only increase its capabilities. We at the AAS are excited to provide WWT’s new home, and we look forward to watching its evolution.”