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UK researchers backed by the UK Space Agency have unveiled an intricate 3D model of the Milky Way. Stretching more than 100,000 light-years across, the Milky Way contains our solar system, our homeworld, us. The newly produced map of the Milky Way comes from a treasure trove of data collected by the European Gaia spacecraft.
Launched in 2013 on a mission to precisely measure the positions, distances and motions of stars, astronomers have dubbed the spacecraft the Galaxy Surveyor.
The collected data – with co-ordination by the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge – will allow astronomers for the first time to measure the mass of our galaxy.
And by examing the acceleration of the solar system, scientists will uncover clues about the solar system’s origin as well as how quickly the Universe is expanding.
Caroline Harper, Head of Space Science at the UK Space Agency, said: “For thousands of years, we have been preoccupied with noting and detailing the stars and their precise locations as they expanded humanity’s understanding of our cosmos.
“Gaia has been staring at the heavens for the past seven years, mapping the positions and velocities of stars. Thanks to its telescopes we have in our possession today the most detailed billion-star 3D atlas ever assembled.”
The spacecraft sits some 930,000 miles from Earth at a so-called Lagrange point, called L2.
A Lagrange point marks a region of space where the gravitational tug between celestial bodies like the Sun and Earth, are in equilibrium.
In this case, the Gaia spacecraft sits behind the Earth and the Moon where it has a clear view of deep space.
At this unique location, the spacecraft can stay in orbit using a minimal amount of fuel.
And being nearly one million miles away from us, the Earth is not bright enough to disrupt observations.
To date, the spacecraft has charted the positions of nearly two billion stars.
The Gaia spacecraft carries two telescopes which monitor the Milky Way.
The light captured by the telescopes is cast onto a one-billion-pixel camera detector connected to an array of instruments.
Because of the spacecraft’s exceptional precision, Gaia can measure an object’s coordinates down to an error of 1.94 degrees.
Additional instruments on the spacecraft are collecting data on the stars’ temperatures and composition – key elements in determining a star’s age.
The information collected by Gaia is analysed by the Gaia Data Processing and Analysis Consortium (DPAC), of which the UK is a major partner.
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The UK Space Agency and Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), fund the Mullard Space Science Laboratory and the Universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, Leicester, which all contribute to the Gaia mission.
The data has been made available to the public in hopes of uncovering new cosmic phenomena.
And the Gaia Early Data Release 3 has been released to the scientific community and public today (December 3).
Dr Floor van Leeuwen of the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, said: “Gaia is measuring the distances of hundreds of millions of objects that are many thousands of light-years away, at an accuracy equivalent to measuring the thickness of hair at a distance of more than 2,000 kilometres.
“These data are one of the backbones of astrophysics, allowing us to forensically analyse our stellar neighbourhood, and tackle crucial questions about the origin and future of our galaxy.”
The European Space Agency (ESA) launched Gaia in 2013 to build upon the success of the Hipparcos satellite launched in 1989.
When Gaia’s first dataset was released in 2016, the number of known stars in the Milky Way has increased twenty-fold.
The UK Space Agency contributes £374million a year to ESA, allowing UK scientists access to a wide range of science programmes.
The UK has already contributed £19million towards Gaia in processing and analysing the spacecraft’s data, with another £2.4million spent on supporting the catalogues derived from the information.
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