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Ending 2013: New EU space probe, unlocking secrets of the Milky Way …

  • December 20th, 2013
  • Posted by EU Australia

VS06 Soyuz with GAIA, LaunchThe European Space Agency (ESA) has launched its Gaia telescope intended to expose the Milky Way, Earth’s universe, to unprecedented mapping – in 3D.

It will build on the existing atlas of some 300 well-known stars by targeting one-billion, during five years in service.

The following is from the ESA statement, 19.12.13.

Gaia 4Repeatedly scanning the sky, Gaia will observe each of the billion stars an average of 70 times each over the five years. It will measure the position and key physical properties of each star, including its brightness, temperature and chemical composition.

Gaia 3By taking advantage of the slight change in perspective that occurs as Gaia orbits the Sun during a year, it will measure the stars’ distances and, by watching them patiently over the whole mission, their motions across the sky.

The position, motion and properties of each star provide clues about its history, and Gaia’s huge census will allow scientists to piece together a ‘family tree’ for our home Galaxy.

The motions of the stars can be put into ‘rewind’ to learn more about where they came from and how the Milky Way was assembled over billions of years from the merging of smaller galaxies, and into ‘fast forward’ to learn more about its ultimate fate.

Lift-off

ESA’s Gaia mission blasted off this morning on a Soyuz rocket, operated by Arianespace, from Kourou, French Guiana … to study a billion suns.

Gaia is destined to create the most accurate map yet of the Milky Way. By making accurate measurements of the positions and motions of 1% of the total population of roughly 100 billion stars, it will answer questions about the origin and evolution of our home Galaxy…

Ground telemetry and attitude control were established by controllers at ESA’s operations centre in Darmstadt, Germany, and the spacecraft began activating its systems …

Destination

Gaia is now en route towards an orbit around a gravitationally-stable virtual point in space called L2, some 1.5 million kilometres beyond Earth as seen from the Sun.

A four-month commissioning phase will start on the way … during which all of the systems and instruments will be turned on, checked and calibrated. Then Gaia will be ready to begin its five-year science mission.

Gaia’s sunshield will block heat and light from the Sun and Earth, providing the stable environment needed by its sophisticated instruments to make an extraordinarily sensitive and precise census of the Milky Way’s stars.

Realising a dream

“Gaia promises to build on the legacy of ESA’s first star-mapping mission, Hipparcos, launched in 1989, to reveal the history of the galaxy in which we live,” says Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s Director General.

“Gaia represents a dream of astronomers throughout history, right back to the pioneering observations of the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus, who catalogued the relative positions of around a thousand stars with only naked-eye observations and simple geometry,” says Alvaro Giménez, ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration.

“Over 2000 years later, Gaia will not only produce an unrivalled stellar census, but along the way has the potential to uncover new asteroids, planets and dying stars.”

By comparing its repeated scans of the sky, Gaia will also discover tens of thousands of supernovas, the death cries of stars as they reach the end of their lives and explode. And slight periodic wobbles in the positions of some stars should reveal the presence of planets in orbit around them, as they tug the stars from side to side.

Gaia will also uncover new asteroids in our Solar System and refine the orbits of those already known, and will make precise tests of Einstein’s famous theory of General Relativity.

Huge data from space

After five years, the data archive will exceed 1 Petabyte or 1 million Gigabytes, equivalent to about 200 000 DVD’s worth of data. The task of processing and analysing this mountain of data will fall to the Gaia Data Processing and Analysis Consortium, comprising more than 400 individuals at scientific institutes across Europe.

“Where Hipparcos catalogued 120 000 stars, Gaia will survey almost 10 000 times as many and at roughly 40 times higher precision,” says Timo Prusti, ESA’s Gaia project scientist…”

The spacecraft was designed and built by Astrium, with a core team composed out of Astrium France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

About the European Space Agency

The European Space Agency (ESA) is Europe’s gateway to space.

ESA is an intergovernmental organisation, created in 1975, with the mission to shape the development of Europe’s space capability and ensure that investment in space delivers benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world.

ESA has 20 Member States: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, of whom 18 are Member States of the EU.

ESA has Cooperation Agreements with eight other Member States of the EU. Canada takes part in some ESA programmes under a Cooperation Agreement.

ESA is also working actively with the EU, for the implementation of the programs Galileo [global positioning] and Copernicus [global environmental monitoring].

Reference

ESA, Paris, (Media Release), N° 44–2013: Liftoff for ESA’s billion-star surveyor, 19.12.13. http://www.esa.int/For_Media/Press_Releases/Liftoff_for_ESA_s_billion-star_surveyor, (20.12.13).

 

Pictures  ESA, wikipedia

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