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Google Earth’s vivid satellite imagery has a serious goshwow factor, but the program also offers a lot of useful tools and data sharing features that make it a terrific research and learning resource.

When Google launched Google Earth last month, it followed its now customary pattern of taking a fee-based service and making it available for free. If you haven’t yet tried Google Earth, download it and give it a try. The program currently runs on relatively new Windows based computers; this download page has full specification details.

Google engineers often say that the search engine of the future will resemble the computer on Star Trek. Well, Google Earth is certainly close: The interface for the program resembles a control console for a spaceship. It’s also very intuitive and easy to use.

But once you’ve had some fun “flying around” the earth, what next?

For starters, try creating some “placemarks” for your favorite locations. Placemarks are just like bookmarks, but they’re associated with a specific location on the planet.

To set a placemark, either search for a location or use the zoom and pan controls to zero-in on a location. Then click the push-pin icon in the lower-right of the console. This brings up a menu; click the placemark selection (alternately, you can also set a placemark by clicking Ctrl-N). A pushpin icon appears on the image you’re viewing-drag it to the exact location you’d like it to be placed.

Notice the dialog box that has appeared on the left side of the screen. This lets you name your placemark and add a description if you like. A checkbox enables advanced features that give you even more control over a placemark, and you can also organize your placemarks into folders, in much the same way that you organize your favorites.

Now the real fun begins. Once you’ve created placemarks, you can “tour” them by ticking the check box next to each location you want to visit, then clicking the little “play” icon in the lower right corner of the My Places box. Google Earth will then fly you around from location to location.

You can also save your placemarks and share them with others, either by email, or by uploading them to the Google Earth community forum. I’ll talk more about that in a moment.

Finding and saving placemarks is cool, but why stop there? Google Earth also lets you save search results related to a particular location. The easiest way is to simply drag the search result folder icon to the relevant folder in your My Places.

Another fun feature lets you fly along a route that’s created when you request driving directions. Simply enter your starting and ending point into the “directions” search boxes, and once the route is mapped, click the play icon. You can control both the speed of the tour and how long you pause at each stop via the Tools > Options > Control menu.

I’ve just scratched the surface of what you can do with Google Earth. Although the Google Earth Support Page offers some basic information, you’ll find a much better guide to the program’s features in the Getting Started guide.

Sharing Google Earth Data

As I mentioned, you can share saved Google Earth placemarks, searches, directions and other data. The easiest way is to simply email the special KMZ file that’s created whenever you save data. But you can also save these files to a network server, either internally or on the web, and anyone with access to that server can download and use your files.

In fact, there’s a thriving community of Google Earth users who’ve created some terrific placemarks and tours, ranging from utilitarian to educational to outright weird. Google offers a list of top ten sightseeing tours , including the Grand Canyon , the Colosseum and other notable landmarks. Using these is easy-just click the Load KMZ link and the tour will automatically be added to the “temporary places” folder of Google Earth. Be sure to save it to a permanent folder if you like what you see.

The Google Earth Community is another good resource for finding saved data. Start with the Earth Browsing discussion, but be sure to check the other areas, such as:

Teachers take note: Many tours have a decided educational flavor. For example, there’s a terrific tour called the seven wonders that not only pinpoints the ancient wonders of the world, but also locates modern wonders, undersea wonders and others all over the globe.

You’ll also find tours illustrating the Lewis and Clark Expedition , Rome: Then and Now , U The Voyages of Admiral Zheng He 1405-1433 and countless others. Using these tours with Google Earth is an astonishing way to bring history and geography to life for students.

Other sites that offer Google Earth data are starting to spring up. One of the best is Google Earth Hacks , a third-party site with lots of cool gizmos to enhance Google Earth. Some of the files point out fun places to visit, while others can do things like put real-time weather radars on your map, add in more 3D buildings and so on.

To see what Google Earth Hacks has to offer, visit the download area . But also be sure to check out the site’s user forum , and if you really get into it you can subscribe to their newsletter .

Other good sites with Google Earth data include Been Mapped , Google Globe and Google Earth Sightseeing for all kinds of cool and whacky views found in the Google Earth database.