Gaia map of the Milky Way

Gaia Spacecraft’s map of the Milky Way is our guide to the galaxy.

Contributed by
Nov 23, 2016

You won’t be needing to hitchhike through the galaxy anymore, thanks to the Gaia Space Observatory.

What looks like an otherworldly art print is actually a 3-D map of the Milky Way’s starscape that captures the galactic glow of over 1 billion stars. 930,000 miles from Earth, stars are being observed in a whole new light by a duo of telescopes and a billion-pixel camera suspended in a stable orbit. If you don’t get lost in the darkness of space, you might still lose yourself in the eerie incandescence of these images.

The billion-dollar Gaia Spacecraft, whose five-year mission is to conjure hi-res maps that determine star density, uses wavelengths to determine the brightness, hotness, position and gravity of these glowing gaseous orbs in what is the most comprehensive map of our galaxy ever. It also gives a glimpse into what elements make up their stardust, which further reveals elemental interactions that cause cosmic phenomena, such as the toxic plasma swirls of alien atmospheres and solar storms on distant suns. The spacecraft also maps celestial objects from exoplanets and asteroids to the half a million quasars lurking in our solar system.

Gaia map of the Milky Way

"These engineering data have been accumulated over 18 months and combined to create a 'map' of the observed star densities, from which a beautiful and ghostly virtual image of our magnificent Milky Way galaxy can be discerned, showing the attendant globular clusters and Magellanic clouds," explained officials from the European Space Agency, which first launched Gaia in 2013. "Where there are more stars, as in the Galactic center, the map is brighter; where there are fewer, the map is darker.”

Gaia’s data will also illuminate a galaxy of answers. 400 million measurements per day could potentially reveal antediluvian secrets the stars have been keeping about their beginnings as well as the birth and evolution of the entire Milky Way. Its unique POV can even open a whole new portal of knowledge about the fabric of spacetime by seeing the bending of starlight (this is actually a thing and has been since Einstein predicted it). It sounds sci-fi, but matter in space can actually warp beams of light if they get in its way en route to observers. Meaning, Gaia has the potential to open our eyes to more acute structural observations of spacetime.

“it is not just a technological effort, but a major human effort,” said Gaia project manager Giuseppe Sarri.

ESA scientists aim for a future in which the Gaia catalog of star locales will tell every telescope exactly what it has set its sights on based on where it happens to be looking. No satellite will ever be stranded in space.