A United Kingdom team of astronomers working on the European Space Agency Gaia mission have contributed to a revolution in our understanding of the Milky Way with the release today of a new census of the stars in our sky, thanks, in part, to work by physicists from the University of Bristol. The latest release includes high accuracy positions for nearly 1.7 billion stars, 600 times the number in the satellite's first dataset, and far in excess of anything achieved before.
Launched in 2013, Gaia started operating the following year, gathering data on 100,000 stars per minute - some 500 million measurements per day.
"For some of the brightest stars in the survey, the level of precision equates to Earth-bound observers being able to spot a Euro coin lying on the surface of the Moon", said an ESA statement.
Ultimately, in tracking the exact position in the sky of these stars, their distance from the earth, their variability, and their movement, the Gaia project will allow scientists to map much more precisely the shape and distances of the galaxy (see video).
The data were then processed by hundreds of scientists and software engineers to produce maps, including of the asteroids in our solar system and a three-dimensional chart of nearby stars. While the third data dump in 2020 won't add many stars to the catalog, it will produce even finer detail.
"The dataset is very rich and we believe it will revolutionize astronomy and our understanding of the Milky Way", Uwe Lammers, Gaia's scientific operations manager, told AFP.
This Gaia's second catalog, based on 22 months of study of the sky, includes the positions and brightness of about 1,7 billion stars.
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Just to keep things in perspective: Gaia's map of 1.7 billion stars is just a tiny fraction of the 100 billion (or more) estimated to exist in the Milky Way.
There is, furthermore, information on the radial velocities of some seven million stars - indicating the rate at which they are moving towards, or away from, Earth.
The UK Space Agency has already contributed £15 million to Gaia and is committed to spending a further £4 million on processing and analysing the data. Individually, other groups of scientists around the globe were excitedly waiting to obtain their hands on the information to run their own research studies.
'Gaia is the culmination of efforts to map the Galaxy since the dawn of telescopic astronomy.
The star survey also includes fresh information on almost 14,000 known objects within our own solar system and an interactive 3D map of the stars, which you can float through. There will be future data releases from Gaia which will likely go even further, and its final star catalog may not arrive until some time in the next decade.
"You see the whole Milky Way in motion around its axis". The pale strip across the middle of the map is the galactic plane, where most of the stars in the Milky Way are located. "For us this diagram is like opening a chocolate box".
The data also covers other objects as well, including the positions of 14,000 asteroids in our solar system and the positions of half a million quasars outside the Milky Way.