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Gaia creates richest star map of our Galaxy, and beyond

on 25 April 2018

The Gaia mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) 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.

A multitude of discoveries is on the horizon after this much-awaited release, which is based on 22 months of charting the sky. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

More details are available here.

Image credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC