ASTRO BOB: Don your spacesuit, we're going for a ride
DULUTH — Earth is just so ... limited. With so many other places to visit in the solar system, why restrict yourself to one planet? You've probably used Google Maps at one time or another to get directions to a restaurant or dog groomer. Now, Google offers the same tool for getting around the solar system. With it, you can zoom into and explore three additional planets, two dwarf planets, 10 moons and a favorite hangout in the International Space Station.
It's easy to use. Go to google.com/maps/space/earth to arrive at home base, then select the solar system body of choice. Zoom in and out by scrolling or hold the mouse button down and drag to rotate the moon or planet to a location of interest. One of my favorites is the space station, where you can take a spin around the cupola with its amazing view of Earth. On the moons and planets, you can scroll the terminator (the border between day and night) back and forth for a cool 3-D effect.
None of these maps would be possible were it not for the many spacecraft that have been nosing around the solar system for decades and the teams behind them. Additional help came from astronomical artist Björn Jónsson, who stitched the maps of Europa, Ganymede, Rhea and Mimas by working with photos from NASA and the European Space Agency.
So go ahead. Jump in your spacecraft and dare to zoom to Mercury and visit picturesque Picasso Crater. Too close to the sun for comfort? Head for Jupiter's moon Ganymede and gaze upon the icy rays of Tashmetum, then get all toasty again with a visit to Io's active volcano Babbar Patera. Wrap up with a giant leap to distant Pluto to stare into the abysmal Balrog Macula. With your index finger on the throttle, you're go for launch at will.