The first map of the Milky Way obtained using the data collected by the Gaia space probe

Sky map created using data collected by the Gaia space probe. At the center the Milky Way, in the lower right the Magellan Clouds (Image ESA/Gaia/DPAC)
Sky map created using data collected by the Gaia space probe. At the center the Milky Way, in the lower right the Magellan Clouds (Image ESA/Gaia/DPAC)

ESA has published the first 3D map of the Milky Way obtained from the Gaia space probe, the most detailed of its kind ever produced. It’s a catalog of more than a billion stars with data that are two hundred more accurate than those of its predecessor, Hipparcos, whose mission lasted between 1989 and 1993.

The Gaia spacecraft was launched on December 19, 2013 with the aim to create a high accuracy 3D map of the stars of the Milky Way but also to catalog billion other celestial objects, not only stars but also galaxies. Gaia began its scientific activity in July 2014 and this first map includes data collected up to September 2015.

To be precise, 1,140,622,719 stars have been cataloged with precise measurements of their position and brightness. This made possible the measurement of distance and motion of stars in about 400 clusters up to 4,800 light years away. The data include 3,194 variable stars, both Cepheids and RR Lyrae: among them, 43 Cepheids and 243 RR Lyrae are new discoveries.

In addition to the stars of the Milky Way, Gaia allowed to catalog the position and brightness of 2,152 quasars. Another high accuracy measurement made using the data collected is the distance of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy satellite of the Milky Way.

In short, there is a map but there is also an archive, put online by ESA, which already contains a really huge amount of data because there’s a really impressive number of observations. Researchers interested in these data can now access them and use them so we can expect a new set of astronomical studies based at least in part on the detecions carried out by Gaia. Meanwhile, fifteen articles have already been submitted to the journal “Astronomy & Astrophysics” for a special issue.

This is just the first release by ESA yet already showing very positive results. The Gaia mission was developed with great ambitions and for this reason it was necessary to overcome many difficulties in the course of the probe’s design. All these efforts by the ESA’s partners involved in the mission are already bearing fruit.

In the future, new releases are scheduled with increasingly better results in terms of quantity of cataloged objects and quality in the precision of their mapping. The Gaia mission is scheduled to last five years and the results are extraordinary already for the data of the first year.

Gaia mission infographics (Image ESA)
Gaia mission infographics (Image ESA)

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