National Geographic Society Newsroom

Billion Star Sky Surveyor Launches

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...

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.

 

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on Twitter and Facebook.

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit www.nationalgeographic.org or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Andrew Fazekas
Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.