Scientists Unveil Massive Data Catalog of 2 Billion Stars

A diagram of the two most important companion galaxies to the Milky Way, the Large Magellanic Cloud (left) and the Small Magellanic Cloud made using data from the European Space Agency Gaia satellite. (Credit: Laurent Chemin for Gaia DPAC and Collaboration)

(CN) — An international team of researchers and astronomers released Thursday a host of new data on the positions and brightness of nearby stars, representing the largest ever stellar catalog of information for the Milky Way to date.

Astronomers made the announcement during a presentation at a special briefing hosted by the Royal Astronomical Society, where they unveiled the new information regarding positions, movements, brightness and even the colors of stars in the Milky Way.

For as long as astrophysicists and stargazers have labored to unravel the mysteries of the cosmos and make startling observations regarding the countless objects that inhabit outer space, researchers have relied on the data collected from a branch of astronomy known as astrometry. 

Astrometry primarily deals with the exact measurements of stars and other planetary bodies, such as their positions in space and their movement patterns, and is responsible for uncovering data that is crucial to experts’ understanding of the universe.

As part of an effort to assist with this goal, in 2013 the European Space Agency successfully launched the Gaia space observatory, a spacecraft built to measure the movement and measurements of stars in the Milky Way with never-before-seen accuracy. 

It operates largely within a quadrant of space known as the Lagrange 2 (L2) point, where its unique distance from the sun and position between the sun and Earth’s gravitational pulls give it a stable, virtually unobstructed vantage point to collect and analyze star data.

Now, nearly eight years after Gaia was first launched, researchers have announced a fresh batch of data collected by the spacecraft that acts as the most comprehensive data release for stars located in a huge chunk of our galaxy.

Thursday’s announcement follows two previous data releases from years prior that had already released sizable portions of stellar data from the Gaia spacecraft. Taken together, the three stellar information packages have revealed the positions of more than 2 billion stars in our galaxy, with the most recent reveal offering up measurements far more detailed than anything found in the previous two.

Researchers also revealed measurements of around 300,000 stars that orbit closest to the sun, measurements that can give researchers the ability to predict potential changes in our solar system over the next million years or so. 

This, for instance, confirmed to researchers that our solar system is gradually but noticeable increasing its acceleration around the Milky Way and that the sun of our solar system is moving towards the center of the galaxy by around 0.2 inches per second every year.

Floor van Leeuwen of the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge and UK Gaia DPAC Project Manager says this new information is not only astoundingly detailed, but can potentially help scientists around the world look deeper into the complex and mysterious questions surrounding the lifespan of our galaxy.

“Gaia is measuring the distances of hundreds of millions of objects that are many thousands of light years away, at an accuracy equivalent to measuring the thickness of hair at a distance of more than 2,000 kilometers,” van Leeuwen said with the release of the study. “These data are one of the backbones of astrophysics, allowing us to forensically analyze our stellar neighborhood, and tackle crucial questions about the origin and future of our Galaxy.”

Thursday’s data reveal, however, was not just focused on stellar information in the Milky Way. Gaia also performed a data deconstruction of two of the largest companion galaxies to the Milky Way, known as the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds, revealing the diverse stellar networks of the two systems and the bridge of stars that connect them.

Researchers report that even with this massive data release, Gaia’s mission is still not complete. Experts anticipate that the spacecraft will continue to collect data until at least 2022, noting that a mission extension to 2025 is on the table due to the fact that the spacecraft has withstood the harshness of outer space much better than was originally anticipated. 

Regardless of how long the mission lasts, experts say future data releases will include stellar positions nearly twice as precise as those reported so far.

The data from these future releases, including those announced Thursday, will be available to scientists and the public free of charge.

%d bloggers like this: