Last Thursday, a massive amount of information was released to astronomers from the ESA Gaia space observatory. The data provides an incredibly detailed map of the Milky Way described as the best of its sort ever available. The new map has information on the positions, distance, and motion of 1.8 billion cosmic objects.
Astronomers say the new map helps scientists to understand our place in the universe better. Researcher Giorgia Busso from University of Cambridge says that the glut of data has produced “a revolution” in many fields of astrophysics. The data has impacted fields, including the study of galactic dynamics such as stellar evolution and the study of nearby objects like asteroids in the solar system.
The Gaia observatory was launched in 2013 with the specific mission of mapping the galaxy with extreme detail. The spacecraft cost $1 billion to build and orbits at the Lagrange-2 point, which is about 1 million miles from Earth. At that point, gravity from the Earth and sun are balanced, and the observatory has an unobstructed view of the universe.
Gaia can view an incredible amount of stars at the same time. It can measure 100,000 stars each minute or 850 million objects each day. Gaia is powerful enough to scan the entire sky once every two months. Researchers say the latest data set from the observatory improves the precision and scope of similar data sets released in 2016 and 2018.
The data set released in 2018 contained measurements for 1.7 billion objects. The new 2020 data set improves accuracy by a factor of two for data on the proper motion of objects. Researcher Nicholas Walton, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge, said the new data gives us “an insight into how the Milky Way lives.”