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Astronomers Weave The Largest 3D Map Of Milky Way Using Gaia Space Telescope

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European Space Agency astronomers involved with the Gaia mission is set to release a map of the Milky Way soon. It is the largest and most precise charting effort of our own galaxy.

It's part of a $1 billion mission designed to measure the distances of stars with unprecedented accuracy. Launched in 2013, the Gaia spacecraft observes the universe from above the side of the earth opposite the sun. The map it was able to produce is an amalgamation of 25 separate observations of stars and their movements over about two years.

Gaia To Release DR2 Data

The DR2 data, described in a series of papers published on April 25 in the Astronomy & Astrophysics journal, can be used to make models of the Milky Way's past and future states.

"We are measuring a map in a moment in time, but we can also go backward and forward," said Gaia deputy project scientist Jos de Bruijne, as Scientific American reports.

In 2016, Gaia released data for 1.1 billion stars, including brightness and positioning. The latest release will bump that number to 1.7 billion stars, which is a pretty significant deal for astronomers and star enthusiasts alike.

"It will be the most precise and complete stellar catalog ever produced," said Gaia science operations manager Uwe Lammers, as Gizmodo reports.

The new round of data extends coverage of Gaia from 500 to 8,000 light-years, according to Lammers. It'll also have data on velocities, stellar temperatures, and parallaxes — or the fancy term for how the stars have moved compared with objects located even farther.

"The precision of the proper motions measured by Gaia is what really makes it so revolutionary," said astrophysicist Allyson Sheffield, though she was not involved in the Gaia mission.

Why This Star Map Matters

The release is a crucial step toward understanding some mysteries about the universe. For starters, scientists predict that our universe is expanding, but they don't exactly how fast it's ballooning up. They also don't know just how many spiral arms the Milky Way has. These are some of the questions Gaia's new data could answer.

It doesn't stop there, though. In 2020, astronomers expect for yet another data release from Gaia, which contains spectral information, or the specific wavelengths of light released by stars. Such information might help researchers further determine star compositions.

Gaia, however, isn't without its limitations. For one, it isn't able to see through space dust, so expect void spots in the map. Perhaps in the future, another telescope, one with infrared capabilities, could be launched to surpass this hurdle.

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