The ESA's New Uber-Precise Star Map Revolutionizes Our View of the Milky Way
Astronomers have been upping their game recently: the Hubble Telescope celebrated its 28th anniversary by taking photos of the Lagoon Nebula, we've got the new TESS Telescope on the way to help spot habitable exoplanets, and we may have even figured out how to spot wormholes.
Today, however, marks a big, big, big day for anyone who cares about space: the ESA's Gaia satellite has just released a huge trove of data that gives us the "exact brightness, distances, motions and colors" of about 1.7 billion stars in the Milky Way, making it the first step in creating an accurate star map of our home galaxy.
The amount of data is staggering, even for scientists who are accustomed to measuring things in light-years and astronomical units.
"This is a very big deal," says astrophysicist David Hogg.
"I've been working on trying to understand the Milky Way and the formation of the Milky Way for a large fraction of my scientific career, and the amount of information this is revealing in some sense is thousands or even hundreds of thousands of times larger than any amount of information we've had previously. We're really talking about an immense change to our knowledge about the Milky Way."
The data is already being used to create videos like the one below, which shows not only the movement of the stars but the constellations:
We want to stress that the video above isn't an artist's representation of the galaxy—this is based on data from the Gaia satellite.
But even this isn't the full picture of the Milky Way. There is estimated to be around 100 billion in our galaxy, which means Gaia's only seeing about 1-2 percent of them.
But even this fractional amount is enough to fuel a lifetime of research, says astronomer Jackie Faherty: "This is the data we're going to be working on for the rest of my career. Probably no data set will rival this."