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Mapping the Galaxy

Imagine, one and a half million kilometers above your head lies the most productive space mission or observatory ever conceived, yielding a staggering 1,500 papers a year; more than the Hubble Space Telescope or any other imaging instrument sent into space and by a long way.

Launched in 2013, this spacecraft doesn’t produce flashy pictures nor makes regular headline news, however it has brought a real revolution in every aspect of astrophysics and is rewriting our understanding of how planets, stars and galaxies are formed. It is no exaggeration to say that this observatory is probably one of humanity’s greatest mission. And yet, few are aware of its existence.

This amazing mission is the Gaia Space Observatory from the European Space Agency.

Gaia has for mission to create a three-dimensional map of the Milky Way and does so with unprecedented precision by measuring the luminosity, position, and motion of stars within the Milky Way family – all 1800 million of them. For each stars it catalogues, the space observatory capture(s) 70 measurements!

Planned to operate until the middle of the decade, the data provided by the spacecraft has already enabled astronomers to trace the evolution of our galaxy and its tumultuous history. For example, scientists looking for the remains of smaller galaxies that have merged with our own have recently found a 6th merger event using Gaia’s data and might have discovered a 7th one as well.

Scientists are therefore waiting with much trepidation for the next data release from the Gaia mission - its third - which is planned this summer on the 13th of June 2022! This latest data will provide even more detailed information about the Milky Way’s past, present, and future.

Expect Gaia related headlines in your space newsfeed in the second half of the year.


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