Space is a big part of Google Earth too. If you zoom way out, you can see the stars. You can also turn off atmosphere from the View menu to see the stars from any particular part of the globe. (Note that star positions change constantly, so they may not be exactly accurate.) For more celestial adventures, go to the Explore menu under the View menu. You can explore the sky, the moon, and Mars! Sky View gives you a view of the constellations. You can zoom in on a particular area of space for much more detail. The images are absolutely astounding. 

Sky has its own set of layers, which allows you to turn on constellations within the solar system. The Welcome to Sky tour is worth doing if you have any interest in astronomy.

You can also visit Mars. As you’d expect, there’s quite a bit of detail in the Layers menu. You can see place names, satellite images, and paths of the rovers and satellites that are currently exploring Mars. The moon is just as interesting, as it features photos, images, and models of various explorations. You can zoom in to the Apollo 11 landing site and see a model of the lunar lander. 

I Believe I Can Fly

One of my favorite features of Google Earth is a built-in flight simulator! Navigate to any location on the planet and choose Enter Flight Simulator from the Tools menu. You’ll be given a choice between two aircraft: a jet fighter and a more manageable prop plane.  If you’re a beginner, you’ll have better luck with the slower plane. 

Before you get started, click on the Help button that comes with the flight simulator pop-up window. This describes the keyboard commands you’ll use to control the plane. When the flight simulation begins, you’ll see a heads-up display that indicates the aircraft’s speed and direction. You can use a joystick or keyboard to fly the plane, but I think the mouse control is probably the easiest. Click the mouse button while the flight simulator is running; the mouse cursor will change to a cross, and your mouse will act like a flight yoke. Push forward to push the aircraft’s nose down, pull back to raise the nose, and use side-to-side motion to roll the plane and control its direction. 

The aircraft is easiest to manage when you’ve turned on Roads (especially if you’re flying in a place you know) and Airports (from the Layers/More/Transportation) layer. It can be challenging to land the aircraft, but it is possible. You can even fly on Mars and the moon. (I know; there’s no atmosphere on the moon, but still, it’s pretty cool.) The flight simulator adds an entirely new dimension to Google Earth as you try to buzz the St. Louis arch and fly through the Grand Canyon.

Building Your Own 3D Models

You can take Google Earth even further. Google has released a free 3D modeling tool called Google SketchUp. While 3D modeling is never easy, this tool makes it relatively painless. You can download a copy of SketchUp here

You can build a model of your house, models of prominent buildings in your area, or whatever else you want. You can then submit your model to be included in Google Earth. Part of the reason Google Earth has models of buildings all over the world is because they have been contributed by the community. SketchUp is a great tool for talking about 3D geometry, modeling, and architecture.

The Google Building Maker is an online tool that’s a little easier to use than SketchUp. It makes it easy to make buildings, but they are available for only a limited area. You can find this tool here.

Google Earth Plug-in Fun

One of the other amazing aspects of Google Earth is how it has been extended. The folks at Google created a version of Google Earth called the GEPlug-in, which exposes the Google Earth engine to web browsers. Clever developers have added all sorts of interesting games and add-ons based on this technology: