The European Space Agency (ESA) today revealed new research results for its Gaia mission. The goal of this space telescope is to create the most accurate and complete map of the Milky Way. Lots of new data has been added, providing fascinating new insights into the galaxy we live in. From strange ‘earthquakes’ to the DNA of the Milky Way.
The Gaia satellite has been mapping the sky since 2014. With this, ESA is trying to better understand how our galaxy works and how billions of years of evolution have brought it about. Scientists use all this information to build an accurate and complete multidimensional map of the Milky Way.
The dataset, Dataset No. 3, released by the space agency today, contains new and improved information about nearly 2 billion stars. Among other things, about its chemical composition, temperature, color, mass, age … but also about the speed with which about 33 million stars are moving towards or away from us. Scientists discovered a lot of this new data by splitting starlight like the colors of the rainbow. In 2016 and 2018, the previous two data sets were released, and they mainly contain information about the positions of the stars, distances, movements across the sky, and the colors of the stars. But Gaia wasn’t just looking at the floating stars in our galaxy. The space telescope also provides the largest catalog yet of binary stars (two stars orbiting each other), thousands of asteroids and planetary moons, and objects far from our Milky Way including millions of other galaxies.
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Not only does our land tremble, but the stars also tremble
One of Gaia’s most surprising discoveries is that the observatory is capable of detecting stellar earthquakes. Because originally, Gaia was not built for this. These earthquakes are small movements on the surface of a star that resemble a tsunami and change the shape of the star. This makes finding them more difficult. Gaia found powerful stellar earthquakes in thousands of stars, including those that rarely had earthquakes.
“Starquakes teach us a lot about the stars, especially what happens in the interior. Gaia opens a gold mine for the ‘stellar flowering’ of massive stars,” says Connie Aerts of KU Leuven in Belgium, part of the Gaia Collaboration. By the way, Gaia has already found out that stars sometimes expand and contract, but they maintain their shape.
DNA doesn’t lie: our galaxy is a beautiful melting pot of stars
What stars are made of teaches us something about their origin and subsequent journey, and thus about the history of the Milky Way. The chemical composition of a star is part of its DNA. Scientists give important information about its origin.
For example, some stars contain more “heavy metals” than others. During the Big Bang, only the light elements (hydrogen and helium) were formed. All other heavier elements — which astronomers call metals — form inside stars. When a star dies, these minerals are released and end up in all the interstellar gas and dust that make up the new stars. The many births and deaths of stars create a mineral-rich environment.
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Thanks to Gaia, we know that some stars in our galaxy are made of primordial matter (hydrogen and helium), while others, like our Sun, are made of material enriched by previous generations of stars. The closer to the center and plane of our Milky Way, the richer the star in minerals. Moreover, based on their chemical composition, Gaia also discovered stars that originally came from another galaxy.
“Our galaxy is a beautiful melting pot of stars,” said Alejandra Recio Blanco of the La Côte d’Azur Observatory in France. “This diversity is very important because it tells the story of how our galaxy formed. It also clearly shows that our sun and we are all part of an ever-changing system.” Gaia proves this with our galaxy’s largest chemical map of smaller galaxies around us.
Gaia is much more than a map full of stars
In addition to recording DNA and star tremors, Gaia has seen more on its quest across our skies. There are also new catalogs of more than 800,000 double stars and 156,000 asteroids in our solar system. Gaia also provides information about 10 million variable stars, mysterious interstellar objects, and about quasars and galaxies outside our cosmic environment.
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“Unlike other missions that study specific things, Gaia is a ‘scan mission.’ This means that while it scans the entire sky with billions of stars many times, Gaia will inevitably make discoveries that other, more specific missions might miss. This is one of its strengths, and we can’t wait The astronomical community to dive into our new data and learn more about our galaxy and its environment than we ever imagined,” said Timo Prosti, Gaia Science Project Officer at ESA.
We can’t wait for the astronomical community to dive into our new data and learn more about our galaxy and its surroundings than we ever imagined.
Several Belgian scientists also contributed to this research. Their specialized expertise played an important role in analyzing the vast amount of data. Astronomers from KU Leuven, the Royal Belgian Observatory, Université libre de Bruxelles, the University of Antwerp and the University of Liege contributed to this work.
Through the observations of the Gaia telescope, the Royal Belgian Observatory (ROB) was able to calculate the exact orbits of about 150,000 asteroids in our Milky Way. Based on these orbits, the location of the asteroid can be better calculated and astronomers can say with more certainty where it will pass Earth.
Sometimes it happens that such an asteroid covers a star, so that its shadow can be seen from Earth. But where exactly this shade will come from, no one can predict with certainty. Often there was a gap of several hundred kilometers. Since ROB is now able to calculate the orbits of 150,000 asteroids, prediction of such occultations becomes more accurate. This allows the public to let the public know where and when an asteroid will pass a star and interested parties can set up their telescopes to see the phenomenon. These observations are also useful to astronomers. If enough people have passed by the time the star disappears and returns, scientists can determine the physical properties of the asteroid.
But determining the orbits of asteroids may also serve a higher purpose. “If an asteroid is found on a collision course with Earth, we will be better able to identify a strategy to avoid danger,” the ESA and ROB said.
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