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PARIS: The Gaia space probe unveiled its latest findings on Monday in its quest to map the Milky Way in unprecedented detail, probing nearly two million stars and revealing mysterious “earthquakes” that sweep across the fiery giants like vast tsunamis .
The mission’s third dataset, which was released to eagerly awaiting astronomers around the world at 1000 GMT, “revolutionizes our understanding of the galaxy”, the European Space Agency (ESA) said.
ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher told a press conference that it was “a fantastic day for astronomy” because the data “will open the floodgates to new science, to new discoveries of our universe, of our Milky Way”.
Some of the map’s new information has come close to home, such as a catalog of more than 156,000 asteroids in our solar system “whose orbits the instrument has calculated with incomparable precision,” said François Mignard, a member of the Gaia team.
But Gaia also sees beyond the Milky Way, spotting 2.9 million other galaxies as well as 1.9 million quasars – the impossibly bright cores of galaxies powered by supermassive black holes.
The Gaia spacecraft is nestled in a strategically positioned orbit 1.5 million kilometers (937,000 miles) from Earth, where it has been watching the skies since its launch by ESA in 2013.
The observation of starquakes, massive vibrations that alter the shape of distant stars, was “one of the most startling discoveries to come out of the new data”, the ESA said.
Gaia was not designed to observe starquakes, but has still detected the strange phenomenon on thousands of stars, including some that shouldn’t have any – at least according to our current understanding of starquakes. ‘universe.
“We have a fantastic new gold mine for asteroseismology of hundreds of thousands of stars in our Milky War galaxy,” said Gaia team member Conny Aerts.
Gaia has studied more than 1.8 billion stars, but that’s only about 1% of the stars in the Milky Way, which is about 100,000 light-years across.
The probe is equipped with two telescopes as well as a billion-pixel camera, which captures images sharp enough to measure the diameter of a single human hair from 1,000 kilometers away.
It also has a range of other instruments that allow it not only to map stars, but also to measure their motions, chemical compositions and ages.
The incredibly precise data “allows us to look at more than 10 billion years into the past history of our own Milky Way,” said Anthony Brown, president of the Data Processing and Analytics Consortium, which sifted through the huge amount of data.
Gaia’s results are already “way beyond what we expected” at this point, Mignard said.
They show that our galaxy is not moving smoothly through the universe as previously thought, but rather “turbulent” and “choppy”, he said.
“He had a lot of accidents in his life and still has them” because he interacts with other galaxies, he added. “Perhaps he will never be in a steady state.”
“Our galaxy is indeed a living entity, where objects are born, where they die,” Aerts said.
“Surrounding galaxies continuously interact with our galaxy and sometimes fall inside as well.”
Around 50 scientific papers have been published alongside the new data, and many more are expected in the years to come.
Observations from Gaia have powered thousands of studies since its first dataset was released in 2016.
The second set of data in 2018 allowed astronomers to show that the Milky Way merged with another galaxy in a violent collision around 10 billion years ago.
It took the team five years to provide the latest data, which was observed from 2014 to 2017.
The final dataset will be released in 2030, after Gaia completes its sky surveying mission in 2025.
Monday’s publication only confirmed two new exoplanets – and 200 other potential candidates – but many more are expected in the future.
“In principle, Gaia, especially when it lasts 10 years, should be able to detect tens of thousands of exoplanets up to the mass of Jupiter,” Brown said.