European satellite data will make 3D galaxy map possible

Expectations for second data release

The data sent by the Gaia satellite of the European Space Agency (ESA) on the position, distances, and brightness of 1,7 billion stars helped the scientists create the largest Milky Way sky map.

As for UNIGE's specific role, this centres on the concept of "variability": studying data from over a half-million of the stars sent back by Gaia, the Swiss researchers will classify changes in the light emitted by the stars, as well as the shape of the light's trajectory.

The €750 ($920) million Gaia satellite's journey started in December 2013, and its first data release, which was based on just one year of observations, was published in 2016. The ESA plans more releases and expects to issue a final star catalog in the 2020s.

The star catalog comes from data collected by the ESA's Gaia satellite and it includes a mind-blowing 1.7 billion stars, most of which are measured with precision as to their positions and motions. "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", says the ESA.

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Armed with these far more accurate measurements, astronomers can now differentiate between the parallax of stars - the apparent shift in the sky caused by Earth's yearly orbit around the sun - from their true movements relative to the galactic center. But at that time the map only had the brightness and location information of those stars.

That's not all. Gaia also observes objects in our Solar System, like the positions of more than 14,000 known asteroids. It covers stars in our home Milky Way Galaxy and beyond.

To place objects within our galaxy in a consistent frame of reference, Gaia peers into the distant universe at other galaxies, which do not appear to move across the sky because they are so far away. An even larger asteroid sample will be compiled in Gaia's future releases. On 25 April it released its second batch of data.

Over 450 scientists and engineers work on the Gaia project.

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