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The beginners guide to Google Earth

01 Feb 2011

You’ve probably heard of Google Earth. You know the giant map that you can download to your computer and look into the backyard of your neighbours?

But there’s much more tO Google Earth than that. Google Earth is an ever-evolving interactive map of the world, the moon and beyond. You can zoom in for panoramic views of city streets, or you can zoom out and explore the deepest reaches of space. Loads if interactive guides help you find points of interest, and an extensive library of layers lets you see the everyday in a whole new way.

If you’re looking for a way to get perspective about your place in the world without leaving the comfort of your computer chair, Google Earth is how you do it.

GETTING STARTEDReady to get started? Here’s how get Google Earth up and running on your desktop.

  1. Go to www.google.com/earth/index.html
  2. Click the download link
  3. Feel free to uncheck the options to download Chrome or set it as your default browser
  4. Click ‘Agree and Download’
  5. Click ‘Run’
  6. Google Earth will start automatically.
NAVIGATIONNavigating the Google world is made easy with a highly intuitive interface. To get moving straight away, simply use the ‘grab’ function on your mouse. Just hover your cursor over the landscape image, and click with your left mouse button. To zoom in and out, just roll your mouse wheel forward and backward.

Alternatively, you can also use the navigation controls in the right-hand corner of the screen. Use the top dial (the one with the eye on it) to look around from a stationary position; use the ‘move’ dial below it change your direction of motion. Similarly use the slider bar below the ‘move’ dial to zoom in and out.

If you get disoriented (which is quite easy to do in the initial stages), click the ‘north-up’ button (the N at the top of the view dial) to reset the view to ‘north-at-the-top’ view.

But to really find what you want to look at, you’ll need to navigate more specifically. The search panel in the right-hand corner is where you’ll do this. Use the address bar to search for a residential address, business or landmark. The address bar functions exactly like the search function in Google Maps. Simply type the address you want to zoom to, then click the magnifying glass icon next to it. Try typing in "New York, 52nd street” as a test.

lick the search icon once and you’ll quickly be taken to an aerial view of Manhattan’s famous jazz hot spot. From here you can zoom in or out, scroll over to the Hudson River or Central Park, or click on a more specific location from the options presented in the navigation bar on the left.

Once you’ve conducted this quick test, head for some famous monuments. Try the Grand Canyon or the Great Wall of China. Or try having a look at your own house.


But we’re just getting started, because in Google Earth, you can also explore some unexpected places, including under the ocean! To do this, click the ‘view’ button at the top of the page, and ensure that ‘Water Surface’ is selected on the dropdown menu. Next, click ‘Ocean’ in the layers panel, then ‘Explore the Ocean’. From there you can zoom down to the surface of the water and then continue into the water to explore under the sea (navigation functions remain the same as above).

There’s plenty to do while you’re there. You can view National Geographic points of interest, look at shipwrecks, and explore a whole range of aquatic environmental elements, all with a couple of mouse clicks in the layers menu of the left of the screen. If you’re a sailing enthusiast you can follow various ocean expeditions by clicking the icon in the layers panel, or explore the ocean free-hand by clicking and dragging with your mouse.


But the most thrilling part of Google Earth is yet to come. It’s time to explore space.

To launch Google Sky, simply point your cursor at the planet icon on the control bar at the top of the page (the little orange Saturn) and click ‘Sky’.

Navigation is a little different in Google Sky. Certain Google Earth options will disappear when you start it up, including the tilt slider and a couple of other functions. Don’t worry about this though – the navigation controls are actually stripped down to the bare basics, making moving to and fro a lot more straightforward than when you’re in earth view. The easiest way is to simply click and drag around, and use your mouse wheel to zoom in and out.

You can also use the standard navigation controls in the top right-hand corner.

In the bottom left of the display panel you’ll see the Layers functions. Click the ‘+’ symbol to drop down your options.

Click ‘Welcome to Sky’ for an introduction. It will launch an interactive tour showing just what you can do in Sky mode.

One awesome element of Google Sky is the ‘Current Sky Events’ function that makes your tour educational as well as awe-inspiring. Simply click the ‘Current Sky Events’ icon on the left-hand Layers panel and you will be taken to a particular current feature of note in Google Sky. You can read facts about what you’re looking at (very handy considering the size of the universe!) and follow links to more information online. You can also navigate easily to the next point of interest, including galaxies, stars and star clusters with a simple click of the mouse. Current Sky Events also contains links to the Hubblecast video podcast series and the Earth and Sky podcasts – designed to make science accessible to the layman.

Likewise use the layers panel to navigate to individual planets in our solar system, tools for backyard astronomers and other educational features. Simply select the square options boxes to see what’s available.


Speaking of other planets, check out Google Mars by clicking the planet icon in the top navigation panel and selecting ‘Mars’. Again,  navigation is very similar to that of Google Earth. Similarly, use the layers section on the bottom right of the screen to find points of interest. Google Mars boasts some ultra-high resolution images of Mars’ surface (comparable to those of large cities in Google Earth). Just look for the pink coloured overlays – click one when you see it and you’ll be taken for the close-up look at the Martian surface.

Likewise Google Moon offers a close-up look at our nearest heavenly neighbour. Navigate your way to points of interest (including sites of all the moon landings) or take a guided tour with Buzz Aldrin. Use the options under ‘Global Maps’ to get alternative views of the terrain. You can view a mosaic made by lunar orbiters or get a feel for the relief of the moon with a colourised overlay.


It’s not all serious business, however. You can use Google Earth as a flight simulator too!

Here’s how you load it up:

  1. Load Google Earth (you’ll need version 4.2 or higher)
  2. Press CNTRL + ALT + A
  3. The flight simulator will load
  4. Select your aircraft (F-16 or SR-22)
  5. Select your start point (either your current location on Google Earth or select an airport from the dropdown menu)
  6. Click ‘Start Flight’
  7. Click the centre of the screen with your mouse to engage mouse steering.
For a complete list of keyboard controls for the flight simulator (such as landing gear!), go here

Note: For added realism, select both ‘Weather’ and ‘3D Buildings’ from the main Google Earth interface before you load the flight simulator.

For an out-of-this-world flying experience, select Google Mars or Google Moon and press CNTRL + ALT + A!