Gaia Telescope Launches: Aims To Map A Billion Stars In The Milky Way Galaxy

By Ben Wolford on December 21, 2013 5:52 PM EST

Gaia Rocket
Soyuz VS06, with the Gaia space observatory, lifts off from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana. Photo: Reuters (Photo: Reuters)

The world is one step closer to having its most complete map of our galactic home, as the European Space Agency successfully launched the Gaia Telescope on Thursday. Its mission is to plot a billion stars on a 3-D map, creating the most advanced drawing of the Milky Way galaxy to date.

The agency said the rocket, known as Soyuz VS06, took off from French Guiana at 6:12 a.m. local time, the Associated Press reported. Soyuz, a Russian-made genus of rockets, "is the most reliable means of space travel," according to the European Space Agency, which also says it's the most frequently used. The launch on Thursday continued that record: "Everything was super smooth," Paolo Ferri, the agency's head of mission operations, told the AP.

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Hurtling through the atmosphere, Gaia opened its sun shield, a 33-foot-wide circular barrier between the delicate telescope instruments and destructive solar rays. In addition to protection, the shield acts as a solar panel, collecting juice to power the spacecraft. A month from now, Gaia will be in a solar orbit about 932,000 miles from the earth in a point known as Lagrange 2, or L2. That spot is one of five places where something can maintain an orbit that keeps the sun, the earth and the object equidistant at all times. Crucially, at L2, Gaia will always have its back to the sun, with its two telescopic lenses facing out into the darkness of space.

"We are going to rewrite every star chart and every astronomy book that we have written over the centuries," the space agency's scientific adviser, Mark 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."

Astronomers estimate the Milky Way is made up of about 100 billion stars. Gaia's humble mission is to chart just one percent of them. An earlier mission, by a telescope launched in 1989, measure the position of about 100,000 stars, according to the AP. Now, by plotting position and brightness, movement and chemical composition, scientists hope to learn more about how the galaxy was created and where it's headed. "The prime importance of this mission is to do galactic archaeology," Jos de Bruijne, deputy project scientist for the Gaia program, told the AP. "It will reveal the real history of our galaxy."

Observing so many stars will also help us learn more about the planets around them. Scientists say the Gaia Telescope will shed even more light on the great leaps in recent research on the study of habitable planets. And it could even help us understand the fabric of space-time elucidated in Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. So, yeah, Gaia is a pretty ambitious telescope. "Almost all the fields of astrophysics will be affected," said Carmen Jordi, of the University of Barcelona.

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