The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Gaia space telescope and its one-billion-pixel camera was launched back in 2013 with the mission of mapping the Milky Way Galaxy. After more than a year of gathering data, the ESA released a star map in 2016 containing the position and brightness of millions of nearby stars.
The ESA just released its second “galactic census” after 22 months of observation, which includes detailed analysis of stellar objects up to 8,000 light-years away, including 1.7 billion stars both within our galaxy and beyond. More than just a map, the dataset includes brightness, location, and motions of more than a billion stars as well as more than 14,000 asteroids. The ESA equates the level of detail and precision in some of the measurements to being able to see a quarter on the surface of the moon.
“The sheer number of stars alone, with their positions and motions, would make Gaia’s new catalogue already quite astonishing,” said Dutch astronomer Anthony Brown. “But there is more: this unique scientific catalogue includes many other data types, with information about the properties of the stars and other celestial objects, making this release truly exceptional.”
For stars within a few thousand light-years, Gaia has provided their velocity in three dimensions, as well as the motions of stars within some globular clusters. This data gives insight into the formation and evolution of our galaxy and will further the quest for explanations of the elusive dark matter, which scientists still don’t fully understand.
This latest release also includes detailed virtual reality representations of the Milky Way. You can view it on a smart phone or laptop, but it’s best experienced with VR Cardboard. For a truly immersive experience, there’s also the GaiaVR app, which provides support for the HTC Vive headset.
Gaia Sky is a free real-time astronomy software package that runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux. It contains the data from Gaia’s second release, including visualizations of star clusters, distant galaxies, and quasars, as well as a simulation of our solar system. The Gaia Sky VR companion version supports multiple VR headsets through Valve OpenVR.
“Gaia is astronomy at its finest,” said Fred Jansen of the ESA. “Scientists will be busy with this data for many years, and we are ready to be surprised by the avalanche of discoveries that will unlock the secrets of our Galaxy.”