Gaia makes most detailed star map of the Milky Way


The European Space Agency has released the most detailed star catalogue ever assembled, including high-precision measurements of almost 1.7 billion stars along with the positions, distances and relative motions of more than one billion suns.

Launched in 2013, Gaia started operating the following year, gathering data on 100,000 stars per minute - some 500 million measurements per day.

According to the ESA, the catalog, now available to professionals and amateur astronomers, includes data on the positions and brightness for 1.7 billion stars, the parallax (an effect in which an object appears in different positions depending the viewer's position) and motion of 1.3 billion stars, surface temperature for over 100 million stars and the effect of interstellar dust on 87 million stars.

The Gaia spacecraft collected high-precision measurements about the distance, motion, brightness and colour of nearly 1.7 billion stars between July 2014 and May 2016.

"It's measuring solar system objects, it's measuring stars, it's not only measuring where they are on the sky but also how distant they are, how they're moving through space, and this allows us to map things like our Milky Way disk, the Milky Way halo where we find the globular clusters", said Anthony Brown of Leiden University, leader of the Gaia Data Processing and Analysis Consortium. Today, the ESA updated Gaia's observations with a new catalog of stars, and it goes far beyond compared with the previous release.

A technical glitch in February temporarily sent Gaia into "safe mode", but the probe is in overall good health, says project scientist Timo Prusti at ESA's European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. "The Gaia archive likewise includes the largest-ever radial speed study, with measurements on how quickly more than 7 million stars are approaching us or far from us, and the resulting map of this information was another "' Wow!' image" for Brown. It also suggests that the stars in the disc and halo of the Milky Way are different ages, suggesting there were two galactic formation events.

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After a feverish wait, astronomers around the world have an ocean of new information to throw themselves into.

The unique mission is reliant on the work of United Kingdom teams at the Universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, Leicester, Bristol, the Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL) at UCL London and the Science and Technology Facilities Council's (STFC) RAL Space facility, all of whom are contributing to the processing of the vast amounts of data from Gaia, in collaboration with industrial and academic partners from across Europe. Stars lagging behind as they orbit the center of the Milky Way appear to be traveling away from us, and those speeding up appear to be traveling toward us.

A close look at 4 million stars has also refined something known as the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, which uses the color and magnitude of stars to determine their evolutionary stage. Unlike space telescopes such as Hubble that orbit the Earth, Gaia can scan the universes without Earth obstructing a big portion of its view.

"You see the whole Milky Way in motion around its axis".

The Gaia spacecraft has actually even made observations of our own planetary system, mapping the positions of more than 14,000 recognized asteroids.

Uwe Lammers, the Gaia operations manager tells Deutsche Welle that by the end of its five-year mission in 2019, Gaia will have surveyed each star 70 times. "For us this diagram is like opening a chocolate box".