Science

European Space Agency starts to unfold atlas of 1 billion stars in 3D

If space is the final frontier, it will help to have an accurate map, and the European Space Agency said Wednesday its mission to chart more than 1 billion stars in the Milky Way is on track for completion in a year's time.

Images come from 10-metre-wide Gaia spacecraft, which has been orbiting the sun

Biggest-ever image of our Milky Way galaxy captured by Euro satellite

5 years ago
1:04
Compiled from images taken between July 2014 and September 2015 1:04

If space is the final frontier, it will help to have an accurate map, and the European Space Agency said Wednesday its mission to chart more than 1 billion stars in the Milky Way is on track for completion in a year's time.

The agency released the first data from its ongoing effort, called the Gaia Mission, to draw the biggest and most precise three-dimensional map of our galaxy.

Mission manager Fred Jansen told a news conference in Madrid that the project has already collected some 500 billion measurements and he is "extremely happy" with the precision of the data. It is being distributed among scientists for analysis.

An all-sky view of stars in our Galaxy – the Milky Way – and neighbouring galaxies, based on the first year of observations from ESA’s Gaia satellite, from July 2014 to September 2015. This map shows the density of stars observed by Gaia in each portion of the sky. Brighter regions indicate denser concentrations of stars, while darker regions correspond to patches of the sky where fewer stars are observed. (ESA/Gaia/DPAC)

At the heart of the five-year mission is the 10-metre-wide Gaia spacecraft, which resembles a barrel sitting on a silver saucer. It carries two telescopes and is orbiting slowly around the sun.

Anthony Brown, head of the scientific consortium processing Gaia data, said the highly precise calculations represent "a revolution" in astrophysics. The high-resolution methods have already helped identify some 400 million new stars.

The full atlas of 1 billion stars — representing about 1 per cent of the stars in the Milky Way — is set to be released near the end of 2017.

The agency says the "huge stellar census" will help resolve mysteries about the origin and evolution of the galaxy.

Cataloguing the galaxy is a major technological challenge, and the agency says Gaia's measuring abilities are in some cases comparable to measuring the diameter of a human hair from 1,000 kilometres away.

An artist's rendering of Gaia mapping the stars of the Milky Way. The 10-metre-wide craft carries two telescopes and orbits the sun. (ESA/ATG medialab)

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