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One billion stars in 3-D: Gaia's billion-star map hints at treasures to come

One billion stars in 3-D: Gaia's billion-star map hints at treasures to comeThe atlas was collected by ESA's Gaia satellite, which was launched in 2013 with a primary mission of producing the most detailed 3D catalogue ever drawn up of the Milky Way and our local galactic neighbourhood.

This morning, at a special launch event in Spain, the agency released the first tranche of organised data captured by the satellite.It includes the largest all-sky catalogue of celestial objects every gathered, including the precise position and brightness of 1,142 million stars.

The distances and motions across the sky of more than two million stars are also included in the data released today.

Gaia is able to scan objects in the whole night sky that are 500,000 times fainter than the human eye can see at night.

Mission scientists say that despite teething issues, Gaia has operated at ten times the accuracy it had been predicted to.

"The road to today has not been without obstacles: Gaia encountered a number of technical challenges and it has taken an extensive collaborative effort to learn how to deal with them," Fred Jansen, Gaia mission manager at ESA, said in a statement.

"But now, 1,000 days after launch and thanks to the great work of everyone involved, we are thrilled to present this first dataset and are looking forward to the next release, which will unleash Gaia's potential to explore our Galaxy as we've never seen it before."

Among the new findings of the first phase of surveys is the listing of 3,194 variable stars that rhythmically swell and shrink in size, leading to periodic brightness changes.

386 were first-time discoveries, and most were found in the Large Magellanic Cloud.

"This is only the beginning: we measured the distance to the Large Magellanic Cloud to test the quality of the data, and we got a sneak preview of the dramatic improvements that Gaia will soon bring to our understanding of cosmic distances," said Dr Gisella Clementini Clementini from INAF and the Astronomical Observatory of Bologna, Italy.

It is not the first time a probe has been sent into space to map the night sky.

A previous satellite called Hipparcos operated during the 1980s and 1990s doing similar work.

Gaia has looked in detail at around two million stars that both it and the Hipparcos mission observed, and used the earlier measurements to correct certain effects, making it possible to estimate distances and motions of the stars.

ESA says the resulting data set has double the level of precision of the previous catalogue and definitively lists 20 times as many stars as the Hipparcos Catalogue, which was previously the go-to reference for astronomers.

Gaia has also enabled scientists to survey the contents of 400 galactic clusters up to 4,800 light years away - far more and far further than was possible with Hipparcos.

The new data reveals a large number of stars in the closest 14 open clusters, that appear to be moving away from the stars to other regions of the galaxy.

Around 450 scientists from 160 institutions in 24 countries across Europe have been working together to make sense of the 40GB of data being downloaded from Gaia every day.

Today marks the 1,000th day since Gaia was launched, and the data released was gathered between July 2014 when science operations began, and September of last year.

Full data findings will soon appear in a special issue of Astronomy & Astrophysics which will contain 15 papers on the topic.
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