January 2, 2014
The Eye Of Gaia
I have to admit, every since learning of ISON’s destruction a few weeks ago, I have been somewhat bummed out in terms of astronomical interests. Not so much that I have lost all caring for the matter, no, far from it, but enough that I have not really looked into much more regarding space since. Well, at last I have found something else to become excited about, a new survey craft set to begin a five-year mission around our sun, all while it sets out to create a 3D map of our known galaxy: Gaia.
Come Easter 2014. Europe’s billion-star surveyor, Gaia, will at last begin its five-year mission to repeatedly observe a billion stars with its billion-pixel camera, allowing astronomers a new glimpse into the origin and evolution of our galaxy, all while it gives us our first fully 3D map of our inner solar system and our galaxy as a whole. Gaia will do all of this from its orbit around the sun, more than 1.5 million kilometers beyond our orbit, on what is known as the L2 Lagrangian point. In her orbit, Gaia will slowly be spinning, sweeping its two highly advanced telescopes across the entire sky and feeding all that it sees directly into a single, powerful digital camera, the largest camera ever sent into space. This camera, referred to as Gaia’s “eye” possesses the most sensitive set of light sensors ever assembled for a space mission. One of the greatest challenges that researchers of this project are set to face is dealing with all of the data that Gaia will be sending back to them. All of the data will be transmitted “raw” and will need to be processed before it can be turned into a calibrated set of measurements that can be used by members of the astronomical community. It is only thanks to the new technologies developed at the Cambridge Data Processing Centre that this will even be possible. In total, it is estimated that the data produced by the five-year mission will fill over 30,000 CD-ROMs. The expectations for this mission are high, and its findings are likely going to be hugely influential on the astronomical community for many years to come.
Gaia began its journey to the stars – more specifically, to our star – on December 19th of this year and it will take the surveyor a little more than a year to reach its intended orbit around the sun. Until then, I will be waiting to hear what marvelous new things it uncovers. There have already been many predictions made as to what Gaia’s eye will reveal, but I chose to wait and see. After all, not knowing what we are going to find is what makes every new journey so exciting.
Image Credit: ESA / ATG medialab; Background Image: ESO / S. Brunier