What’s it like to fly through space, looking back at the Sun and planets as you leave them behind at multiple times the speed of light?
Probably something very much like what you can see playing with Google Chrome’s fun tool, 100,000 Stars
This is a lovely browser-based app that plots the nearest 100,000 stars to the Sun in 3-D space. You can zoom in and out, fly around, and get more info on specific stars by clicking their names as they pop up. You can even zoom way out to see where our solar neighborhood is with respect to the rest of the Milky Way galaxy (though that part is not using actual data for visualization).
The interface is pretty smooth, and I found it works well on my Mac using either Chrome or Firefox. (NOTE FOR MAC GEEKS: in Safari it loaded a preset video and told me I needed WebGL for it to work. I followed the instructions on the WebGL page to implement it, but found it didn’t work on my iMac running OS 10.8.2. Maybe you’ll have better luck.) The app starts you off near the Sun, and you can zoom in and out using the vertical slider bar on the right. Soothing music plays while you do, which (nicely!) can be easily switched off if you prefer by clicking the speaker icon above the zoom bar.
At the upper left is a button that sets you on a nice guided tour, but don’t be afraid to just grab the conn and head out to the second star on the left; the interface for the app is fairly intuitive. You can click and drag to rotate the view, and my mouse wheel did fine for zooming (or you can use the slider bar).
It’s fun to fly around and zoom in on other stars. Once you do, you can click a link that displays the Wikipedia entry for the star. One fun thing is the graph icon next to the tour at the upper left that’s labeled “Toggle spectral index.” If you click it, all the stars are replaced by colored squares representing the stars’ colors—that’s what “spectral index” means in astronomy-talk. Pretty cool.
Credit: Phil Plait / Bad Astronomy