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I have never suffered from a lack of imagination. As a child, I spent many hours dreaming of stories written by Ray Bradbury. I carried books by Clifford Simac and Robert Sheckley to school instead of textbooks. I swore to my parents that I had witnessed first hand the stories described by Isaac Asimov. I considered Stanislav Lem a close relative because my great-grandmother was also from Poland...
I grew up and now I have three young children of my own. Every morning while I am driving them to school, we carry on very interesting conversations. "Papa, be cautious, hit the breaks, meteorite shower!!!," my oldest son shouts. While we are driving over a curved overpass, making a circle right to the highway, my children usually overwhelm me with the reproaches that I, allegedly, have not noticed a black hole that has changed the trajectory of our ship, and even that we have inadvertently crossed the event horizon… "I think we are in a different time period!", - my daughter suddenly speaks probably recalling Chris Van Allsburg's "Zatura". I usually support the game: "Yes, by my count, we are likely 200 years ahead" Here, begins to whimper my youngest son trying to estimate how old his mom is right now. The fact that we are going to pass the same black hole on our way home, and that will take us back to our native time comforts my son for the reminder of the trip. Our topic changes to how interesting it would be now to look at the ruins of the school and at the graves of the long-dead teachers. But here is the school. And the teachers are all in good shape. The mirage dissipates.
Nearly one year ago, I told a story to my children. The story goes something like this: we put our spacecraft into a circular orbit around the white dwarf Sirius B. "Where is it?", my oldest son suddenly asked. "It is no more than only two or three parsecs from here ", I laughed. “Papa, I want to know exactly where it is." My son frowns very seriously. "Yes, we always want to know where exactly we travel, but you just make it up!" my daughter added. It was at that very moment that I realized, that without a proper sky map, we were simply lost….
All the next night I browsed the celestial charts on the Internet. I considered them all - from the very complex to the overly simple. I discovered charts designed for professional astrophysicists, astrologists, ufologists or even for the kindergarten students. But among the hundreds of maps I could not find a single one that focused on my children’s specific area of interest. I was troubled and pointed out this dilemma to my friend Sergei. Sergei laughed: "Ha! In a second, I can find exactly what you’re looking for!" And he deepened in the Internet. Sergey browsed deep into the night. 10 hours later, he emerged with a disappointed look on his face. He said thoughtfully: "Yep ..." And that is how our vision to make an ideal sky map was born.
We knew from the very beginning, who will be the main user of our project – children. I had three, Sergei had two, and therefore we both had firsthand knowledge of what would capture a child’s interest. We wanted to present the children with the illusion of the space travel, giving them the possibility to freely wander throughout in the Universe. We wanted to demonstrate how the universe was complex and magnificent. And we hoped to find the right form of visual presentation that would help the children to understand their own place in the Universe without being intimidated by its grandeur. We want the children to feel how small and fragile our Earth is, and how ephemeral and accidental our lives are. We believe that the perception of a person’s place in the Universe has a particular relevance in our time when the world becomes smaller and at the same time more vulnerable every day. From this standpoint, it seemed to us that knowledge of the Universe is important not only academically, but also, because this knowledge will definitely have an effect on a child’s attitude toward the environment, the life, and the people.
The desire to make the site accessible for children of all ages imposes definite requirements for the site’s control as well as for its content. It is obvious that the control must be as simple as possible, without requiring the need to enter any special parameters. First of all, the site’s content should have an emotional appeal and leave a general impression. At the same time, the site should provide extensive information designed to encourage children to explore and to be creative. To a large extent, these specific requirements dictated to us the future form of the site.
The development of this site has taken a long time. We started with a simple idea - to make a gift for our own children living in a big city and not knowing the sky in all its grandeur. But during this process, we ourselves, became fascinated by the Universe. For an entire year, we literally lived this project and then involuntarily brought the outer space into our houses. We saw the reaction of our own children to the project and we definitely liked it. Our children’s games and interests began to evolve. To a much larger degree, they would become romantics of astronomy. Maybe they will not become astronomers, but we hope that SKY-MAP will help them better understand themselves and leave in our kids’ hearts a tiny piece of the celestial sphere - something independent of the circumstances of our unpredictable and often cruel life. By watching our own children, we have finally come to the only conclusion that SKY-MAP may be a great gift for children of all ages.
Shortly after the site became available on the Internet, we found that by no means, are children the only ones who manifested a great interest in our work. The number of site visitors grows continuously. Various interested parties have contacted us for many reasons: journalists, professional astrophysicists, amateur astronomers, teachers, and students. First of all, the site is as convenient for children as it is for adults. Nor, does this site overwhelm with overly technical jargon. And definitely what children find so striking about our site will also have a similar eye-catching effect on adults. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey, (SDSS), integrated into our site produces a strong impression. The final reason is the fact that our implementation makes it possible, not only to see the splendid photographs which cover the continuously enormous section of sky, but also to interactively obtain information about all space objects simply by moving the mouse from one object to another.
Since SDSS covers only one fourth of the sky, we began to search for opportunities to use others Surveys which would cover the entire sky. As a result, we began to collaborate with Thomas A McGlynn from SkyView, (The Internet's Virtual Telescope, NASA). Influenced by Thomas, we adapted SKY-MAP in such a way that at the present moment the integration of any Surveys does not present technical difficulties. As an example, the infrared Survey of the entire sky (IRAS) is now accessible on our site.
The immense interest in SKY-MAP shown by NASA, Moscow State University, Space Telescope Science Institute, ESA, and other major research institutions worldwide was rather surprising for us. But over time, we have come to realize that this science can be presented in the form of a broad and turbulent river. As an analogy, there are qualified scientists on one bank of this river, and curious individuals on the other. As well, let’s not forget our most important audience – the children. The bridges across this river, of course, exist. These are the popular science literature, the science telecasts, the popular scientific articles... However, all of these bridges are narrow; each of them is specific and makes it possible to cross the river only in one particular place. Children need a wide bridge which will make it possible to run from one bank to another, to be able to jump on it, have fun and play catch. Our goal is to build SKY-MAP as this bridge with the added benefit that this bridge can be expanded and extended indefinitely.
The interest generated by the general public and the scientific community convinced us that our technology can become the base for a wide range of data about the Universe. A star is not only the object of scientific studies. Throughout history, man has conjured countless fairy tales, myths, superstitions and science fiction in an attempt to explain the Universe. SKY-MAP’s database contains information about hundreds of million of space objects. We believe that over the course of time, we will be able to modify our system in such a way that it would include the entire spectrum of knowledge (academic and research) in one way or another connected with the objects of the Universe.