Billion Star Sky Surveyor Launches


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Europe’s Gaia Space Telescope promises to create the most accurate map of the Milky Way galaxy ever attempted. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab; background: ESO/S. Brunier

Astronomers plan on rewriting the star-charts with the latest space telescope, which aims at unlocking the secrets behind the birth and evolution of our home galaxy.

Europe’s new Milky Way Galaxy mapping-mission, called Gaia, is about to embark on a space mission that should create the most detailed three-dimensional star chart of the nearest billion stars. Each and every target star will have its position, distance, movement, and changes in brightness followed at least 70 times over a five year period. (See also ”Mystery Deepens Over Where Sun Was Born“.)

The two-ton space telescope,  launched on Thursday on a Russian Soyuz rocket, headed into orbit from the European Space Agency’s spaceport in French Guiana. Light from the cosmos will focus onto Gaia’s eye, a single digital camera equipped with a billion-pixel CCD chip-set, the largest and most sensitive light-detector ever flown in space.

With 100 individual mini-detectors working in concert, star positions will be measured with stunning precision, down to 10 micro arc-seconds of accuracy. “This is an astonishing step up in accuracy. To give an example, Gaia will measure the difference in position of one side of a human hair compared to the other side of it—in Paris, as viewed from London,” said mission scientist Mark Cropper, from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory in a statement.

Expectations are that Gaia will also be able to peer at extremely faint objects too—down to magnitude 20—about 400,000 times fainter than what the naked eye can see looking up at the night sky.

Astronomers hope that the flood of data returned will unlock some of the mysteries behind the origin and evolution of our Milky Way Galaxy and create a brand new catalog of tens of thousands of new and exotic objects, including supernovae, blazars, dwarf stars, exoplanets, and even asteroids in our own solar system.

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