- The Washington Times - Friday, August 12, 2005

I am infatuated. My heartthrob is Google Earth, a program that lets you see satellite photos of anywhere on Earth.

Granted, some regions have lots more detail than others, but don’t be picky. If you’re interested, go to Google.com, click on More, then click on Google Earth, whereupon you can quickly download it. Try it. It’s just lots of fun.

When it loads, you get a space-eye view of the planet in royal blue against the blackness of space.

Presumably anticipating a North American usership, Google has the initial view defaulting to that continent. You can then, for example, enter the ZIP code of your house. You then find yourself dropping down, down, down—at least that is the sensation — into the city. If your house is in Washington, the major geography of the capital becomes visible, meaning the Potomac and so on. When the drop ends, you can plainly see roads, cars and buildings.

If you like, it will show roads, malls, pharmacies, golf courses and such, and roads like, say, Interstate 66 and Henry Bacon Drive Northwest, what have you, nicely labeled.

The problem here is that for driving directions, you would do better with MapQuest.com. In Google Earth, though, a small line below the picture gives you the latitude and longitude of the cursor, in case you want to know the numbers for, say, the southern tip of Roosevelt Island. It also tells you the height above sea level (the Potomac is, it says, three feet above sea level).

There are zoom-in and zoom-out buttons so that you can change your “altitude” above the city, and a handy altimeter tells you that you are seeing the place from, say, 3,301 feet.

You also can tilt the scene gradually to have a slanting view instead of seeing everything from directly overhead. You can do lots of things.

My impression was that the National Security Agency had sold Google its software from 30 years ago. It doesn’t, of course, come close to military resolution.

Much of the program’s appeal is how it gets from place to place. If you are down low looking at Washington and type in, say, Shanghai, you find yourself swooping upward into space, sailing dizzyingly across continents and oceans, and then dropping into China. I suspect a major purpose of this is to give the software time to download the map, but it is nonetheless magical.

This, remember, is a freebie program mostly of interest just for the fun of playing with it. However, there is no technical reason why we couldn’t have improved versions with far higher resolution and much more information. I, for one, would like to have a virtual world in which I could drop down to street level and then follow the street, seeing actual buildings. This, or at least something close to it, is technically possible, and a company called A9 in Palo Alto, Calif., has a beta version online (http://maps.a9.com/).

With Mars Express, the Mars probe of the European Space Agency, sending back truly gorgeous three-dimensional photos of the planet, I don’t see why ESA and NASA couldn’t make a similar program for Mars. Maybe it’s just me. Still, I would love to be able to fly over and through those gaunt red landscapes and huge valleys at will. If this has been done, I don’t know of it. Any NASA folk reading this?

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