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One Billion Stars, 30,000 Light Years, And Petabytes Of Data

A mission by the European Space Agency to measure and map the Milky Way promises to give astronomers a precise, detailed, and three-dimensional view of our galaxy. The five-year project will generate more than a petabyte of data on the makeup, position, motion, and other characteristics of a billion stars.

The European Space Agency (ESA) launched its data-collecting satellite—equipped with two telescopes, photon detectors, video processing unit, Sun shield, and other instruments—on December 19. In early January, the satellite, called Gaia, arrived at a point in space 1.5 million kilometers from Earth known as “L2,” from which it will carry out its surveillance of the Galaxy.

Gaia will measure the spectra and light intensity of stars and determine their velocity using distances and motions. It will look for planets (by detecting “tiny wobbles” in a host star’s position), exploding stars, failed stars known as brown dwarfs, asteroids, comets, and “Planet X,” a hypothetical tenth planet in our solar system.

In doing so, ESA’s satellite will generate huge volumes of data. “It will single handedly increase the data we possess about where stars are located in space by thousands of times compared to all previous such measurements in history,” writes the Boston Globe.

The Gaia Data Processing and Analysis Consortium, a group of more than 400 scientists at institutions across Europe, will use the data to study the solar system, galactic astronomy, cosmology, and more. “The data processing ground segment is a fundamental element of the mission,” according to ESA.

The astrometry data collected by Gaia will augment scientific observations made by powerful ground-based telescopes. The University of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy recently reported that new evidence shows that older stars are in the inner regions of the Milky Way and younger stars in the outer regions, lending support to theories that “our galaxy grew from the inside-out.”

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