The new map of the galaxy is a “gold mine” for astronomy
BERLIN (AP) — The European Space Agency has released a wealth of data on nearly 2 billion stars in the Milky Way, collected by its Gaia mission in a bid to create the most accurate and comprehensive map of our galaxy.
Astronomers hope to use the data to better understand how stars are born and die, and how the Milky Way has evolved over billions of years.
The new data includes new information such as the age, mass, temperature and chemical composition of stars. This can be used, for example, to determine which stars were born in another galaxy and then migrated to the Milky Way.
“It’s an incredible gold mine for astronomy,” said Antonella Vallenari, who helped lead a consortium of 450 scientists and engineers who spent years turning measurements collected by the probe into usable data.
Gaia was also able to detect more than 100,000 so-called starquakes, which the ESA likened to large tsunamis that propagate through stars. These allow scientists to infer the density, interior rotation and temperature inside stars, said astrophysicist Conny Aerts.
Although it has collected information on only about 1% of the stars in the Milky Way, the mission already provides the basis for about 1,600 scientific publications per year.
Project scientist Timo Prusti said the large number of stars observed makes it more likely that scientists will make very rare discoveries.
“You have to observe a lot of objects to put the needle in the haystack,” he said.
ESA chief Josef Aschbacher said having more data also allows astronomers to understand some of the forces at play in the galaxy, such as how our own solar system is projected at the interior of the Milky Way.
“It enables things that would never be possible without this large amount of data,” he said.
The currently released Gaia data also includes information on 800,000 binaries – stars that move in tandem with each other – as well as several new exoplanets, hundreds of thousands of asteroids in the solar system and millions of objects beyond our galaxy.