Gaia Telescope Launches Next Week: Space Observatory Will Create Stunning 3D Map Of Milky Way

By Josh Lieberman on December 12, 2013 1:26 PM EST

milky way
The Gaia telescope will launch on December 20. Over the course of five years, Gaia will create a 3D map of the Milky Way. (Photo: Reuters)

The European Space Agency is set to launch the Gaia telescope, a space observatory that will create a 3D map of the Milky Way and pinpoint the locations of a billion stars. The $3.3 billion Gaia telescope will give astronomers incredible insight into how the Milky Way formed and how it will evolve. The contribution to astronomy will be staggering, says ESA scientific adviser Mark McCaughrean.

"We are going to rewrite every star chart and every astronomy book that we have written over the centuries," McCaughrean told the Guardian. "Thanks to Gaia, we will find out how the Milky Way was put together. And for good measure it will provide us with an early warning system for asteroids heading towards Earth."

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After hitching a ride on a Russian Soyuz rocket on December 20, Gaia will head to Sun-Earth Lagrange point L2, 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. Once there, Gaia will take several months to calibrate its instruments before spending five years creating a glorious 3D Milky Way map.

As you would imagine, it takes a pretty decent camera to map the entire Milky Way. Gaia is equipped with a one billion pixel camera, which is so precise that it's capable of picking out a single strand of hair from about 430 miles away. To put that in perspective, imagine standing in New York and being able to spot a hair on someone's head in Virginia.

"[Gaia] can measure star positions with an accuracy of 10 micro-arc seconds," said Gerry Gilmore, a lead scientist for the mission. "That means it can locate stars with an accuracy equivalent to the pinpointing of a shirt button on the Moon. Once Gaia has completed its five-year survey, we will know where everything is inside our galaxy--for the first time."

Gaia will not only map the locations of a billion stars but will gather details about their physical properties too. Gaia will determine the luminosity, temperature, and elemental composition of stars. With that data, astronomers will be able to calculate the speed and direction of space objects, and can determine which objects are companions.

"Gaia is an astronomer's dream," said ESA director of science Alvaro Gimenez. "Gaia is the machine that has been designed so that we will get all the answers to all the questions we have about the stars."

Check out the video below to see how Gaia will spin around like crazy in order to map the Milky Way. (You may want to watch it on mute, lest you be assaulted by enormously cheesy music.)

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