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Milestone in bid to build 3D map of Milky Way

Edinburgh researchers are helping to create the most accurate map of the galaxy to date.

Image of Milky Way taken by Gaia satellite
Image of Milky Way galaxy taken by Gaia satellite (credit: DPAC/ESA)

They are part of a European project charting more than one billion stars in the Milky Way.

Data released by the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission heralds a new era in astronomy, revealing far greater detail of the stars in our galaxy than ever before.

Details collected during the project will eventually build the most accurate 3D map of the positions, motions and chemical composition of stars.

Star study

The landmark announcement provides sky positions and brightness data for nearly 1.7 billion stars. It also includes distances, motions and colour information for 1.3 billion stars.

The release is based on nearly two years of observations made by the Gaia satellite. It orbits Earth at a distance of 1.5 million kilometres – four times farther away than the Moon.

The first data from the satellite was released in September 2016. It included the position and brightness for 1.1 billion stars, as well as distances and motions of the brightest two million stars.  

A third release will take place towards the end of 2020.

Edinburgh team

A small team from the University’s School of Physics and Astronomy has been working on the project for more than ten years.

Michael Davidson, Nigel Hambly and Nick Rowell are responsible for calibrating key steps in data processing systems. They were developed for Gaia by hundreds of engineers and scientists across Europe.

The Edinburgh team’s participation is funded by the UK Space Agency and Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

Generally speaking, science progresses in small increments with a great deal of painstaking replication to verify each small step. It is very rare to witness a major leap forward in knowledge. ESA Gaia is very much in this latter category. It is a truly revolutionary mission that has impact in all areas of astronomy and astrophysics, from the nearest asteroids in the solar system to the most distant quasars near the limits of the observable Universe.

Dr Nigel HamblySchool of Physics and Astronomy

Related links

School of Physics and Astronomy

European Space Agency

Science and Technology Facilities Council