European Space Agency released the most detailed map yet of our Galaxy, the Milky Way. Astronomers used data from the ESA’s Gaia satellite.
So, the image you see above (full resolution available here) features the positions of nearly 1.7 billion stars and the distance, colors, velocities, and directions of motion of about 1.3 billion of them. So, astronomers expect this data will contribute to countless discoveries over the course of its analysis.
“In my professional opinion, this is crazy awesome,” says Megan Bedell of the Center for Computational Astrophysics in New York. “I think the whole community is eager to dive in.”
It took years for some 450 human scientists and software engineers to analyze the raw satellite data and produce the 3-D star charts, asteroid orbits, and other images, the Associated Press reports.
The European Space Agency released the data on April 25 and will appear in a special issue of Astronomy & Astrophysics.
With this achievement, researchers hope to better understand the Milky Way’s formation and evolution.
“The observations collected by Gaia are redefining the foundations of astronomy,” said ESA Director of Science, Günther Hasinger, in a press release. “Gaia is an ambitious mission that relies on a huge human collaboration to make sense of a large volume of highly complex data. It demonstrates the need for long-term projects to guarantee progress in space science and technology and to implement even more daring scientific missions of the coming decades.”
The 2-tonne, €1-billion Gaia mission launched in late 2013 and began collecting scientific data in July 2014. So, the satellite tracks Earth in its orbit around the Sun. Also, through repeated measurements, the spacecraft estimates the distances of stars — and other celestial objects — using a technique called parallax.
In addition to surveying local stars, Gaia observed the motions of globular clusters in the Milky Way’s halo. The satellite also went outside our galactic borders. Thus, measuring the motions of nearby dwarf galaxies, like the Small and Large Magellanic Cloud. Gaia also pinpointed the positions of distant quasars.
“Gaia is astronomy at its finest,” said Gaia mission manager, Fred Jansen of ESA. “Scientists will be busy with this data for many years, and we are ready to be surprised by the avalanche of discoveries that will unlock the secrets of our Galaxy.”
Thumbnail image: ESA’s Gaia satellite has unveiled this new view of the Milky Way. Credit: ESA