The European Space Agency’s Gaia mission has produced the richest star catalogue to date, including high-precision measurements of nearly 1.7 billion stars and revealing previously unseen details of our home Galaxy. 

There is hardly a branch of astrophysics which will not be revolutionised by Gaia data.

Gerry Gilmore

A multitude of discoveries are on the horizon after today’s much-awaited release, which is based on 22 months of charting the sky, as part of Gaia’s mission to produce the largest, most precise three-dimensional map of our Galaxy ever created. The new data includes positions, distance indicators and motions of more than one billion stars, along with high-precision measurements of asteroids within our Solar System and stars beyond our own Milky Way Galaxy.

Preliminary analysis of this phenomenal data reveals fine details about the makeup of the Milky Way’s stellar population and about how stars move, essential information for investigating the formation and evolution of our home Galaxy.

“The observations collected by Gaia are redefining the foundations of astronomy,” said Günther Hasinger, ESA Director of Science. “Gaia is an ambitious mission that relies on a huge human collaboration to make sense of a large volume of highly complex data. It demonstrates the need for long-term projects to guarantee progress in space science and technology and to implement even more daring scientific missions of the coming decades.”

This unique mission is reliant on the work of Cambridge researchers who collect the vast quantities of data transmitted by Gaia to a data processing centre at the University, overseen by a team at the Institute of Astronomy.

“There is hardly a branch of astrophysics which will not be revolutionised by Gaia data,” said Cambridge’s Professor Gerry Gilmore, Principal Investigator for the UK participation in the Gaia Data Processing and Analysis Consortium, and one of the original proposers of the mission to ESA. “The global community will advance our understanding of what we see, where it came from, what it is made from, how it is changing. All this is made freely available to everyone, based on the dedicated efforts of hundreds of people.”

Gaia was launched in December 2013 and started science operations the following year. The first data release, based on just over one year of observations, was published in 2016; it contained distances and motions of two million stars. The new data release, which covers the period between 25 July 2014 and 23 May 2016, pins down the positions of nearly 1.7 billion stars, and with a much greater precision. For some of the brightest stars in the survey, the level of precision equates to Earth-bound observers being able to spot a Euro coin lying on the surface of the Moon.

With these accurate measurements it is possible to separate the parallax of stars – an apparent shift on the sky caused by Earth’s yearly orbit around the Sun – from their true movements through the Galaxy. The new catalogue lists the parallax and velocity across the sky, or proper motion, for more than 1.3 billion stars. From the most accurate parallax measurements, about ten percent of the total, astronomers can directly estimate distances to individual stars.

The comprehensive dataset provides a wide range of topics for the astronomy community. As well as positions, the data include brightness information of all surveyed stars and colour measurements of nearly all, plus information on how the brightness and colour of half a million variable stars change over time. It also contains the velocities along the line of sight of a subset of seven million stars, the surface temperatures of about a hundred million and the effect of interstellar dust on 87 million.

Gaia also observes objects in our Solar System: the second data release comprises the positions of more than 14,000 known asteroids, which allows precise determination of their orbits. A much larger asteroid sample will be compiled in Gaia’s future releases.

Further afield, Gaia closed in on the positions of half a million distant quasars, bright galaxies powered by the activity of the supermassive black holes at their cores. These sources are used to define a reference frame for the celestial coordinates of all objects in the Gaia catalogue, something that is routinely done in radio waves but now for the first time is also available at optical wavelengths.

Major discoveries are expected to come once scientists start exploring Gaia’s new release. An initial examination performed by the data consortium to validate the quality of the catalogue has already unveiled some promising surprises – including new insights on the evolution of stars.

The team in Cambridge is led by Dr Floor van Leeuwen, Dr Dafydd Wyn Evans, Dr Francesca De Angeli and Dr Nicholas Walton.

“This data release has proven an exciting challenge to process from spacecraft camera images to science-ready catalogues,” said De Angeli, head of the Cambridge processing centre. “More sophisticated strategies and updated models will be applied to the Gaia data to achieve even more precise and accurate photometric and spectrophotometric information, which will enable even more exciting scientific investigations and results.”

“Gaia has so far observed each of its more than 1.7 billion sources on average about 200 times,” said Evans. “This very large data set has to have all the changing satellite and sky responses removed, and everything converted on to a well-defined scale of brightness and colour. While a huge challenge, it is worth it.”

“Groups of dwarf galaxies, including the Magellanic Clouds, can now be observed to be moving around in very similar orbits, hinting at a shared formation history,” said van Leeuwen, Project Manager for the UK and European photometric processing work. “Similarly, a pair of globular clusters has been observed with very similar orbital characteristics and chemical composition, again pointing towards a shared history of formation. The accurate observed motions and positions of the globular clusters and dwarf galaxies provide tracers of the overall mass distribution of our galaxy in a way that has not been possible with this level of accuracy before.”

“The Gaia data will be a globally accessible resource for astronomical research for decades to come, enabling the future research of today's young astronomers in the UK, Europe and the World,” said Walton, a member of the ESA Gaia Science Team. “Gaia is raising excitement and opportunity, bringing the next generation of researchers together to tackle many key questions in our understanding of the Milky Way.”

More data releases will be issued in future years, with the final Gaia catalogue to be published in the 2020s. This will be the definitive stellar catalogue for the foreseeable future, playing a central role in a wide range of fields in astronomy.

“This vast step into a new window on the Universe is a revolution in our knowledge of the contents, motions and properties of our local Universe,” said Gilmore. “We look forward to the international astronomical community building on this European project, with its major UK contributions, to interpret these Gaia data to revolutionise our understanding of our Universe. This is a magnificent harvest, but cornucopia awaits. We are all proud to be part of this magnificent project.”

Adapted from an ESA press release.

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