BERLIN ( Associated Press) — The European Space Agency has released a vast amount of data on nearly 2 billion stars in the Milky Way collected by its Gaia mission in an effort to create the most accurate and comprehensive map of our galaxy.
Astronomers hope to use the data to better understand how stars are born and die, and how the Milky Way has evolved over billions of years.
The data includes new information such as the age, mass, temperature and chemical composition of the stars. This can be used, for example, to determine which stars were born in another galaxy and later migrated to the Milky Way.
“This is an incredible gold mine for astronomy,” said Antonella Vallenari, who helped lead a consortium of 450 scientists and engineers who spent years turning the measurements collected by the probe into usable data.
Gaia was also able to detect more than 100,000 so-called starquakes, which the European Space Agency (ESA) likened to huge tsunamis rippling through the stars. These allow scientists to deduce the density, interior rotation and temperature inside stars, explained astrophysicist Conny Aerts.
Although it has only collected information on about 1% of the stars in the Milky Way, the mission already provides the basis for some 1,600 scientific publications a year.
Timo Prusti, project scientist, indicated that the large number of stars observed will allow scientists to make very unusual discoveries.
“You have to look at a lot of objects to be able to put the needle in the haystack,” he noted.
ESA chief Josef Aschbacher said having more data also allows astronomers to understand some of the forces at play in the galaxy, such as how our own solar system is being thrown into the Milky Way.
“This enables things that would never be possible without this huge amount of data,” he said.
The Gaia data now being released also includes information on 800,000 binaries—co-moving stars—as well as several new exoplanets, hundreds of thousands of asteroids in the solar system, and millions of objects beyond our galaxy.