This is Not a Photo of the Milky Way. It’s the Map of 1.8 Billion Stars From Gaia’s Major New Data Release

ESA/Gaia/DPAC; CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO. Acknowledgement: A. Moitinho.

In 2013, the European Space Agency (ESA) deployed the Gaia mission to space, a next-generation observatory that will spend the next five years gathering data on the positions, distances, and proper motions of stars. The resulting data will be used to construct the largest 3D space catalog ever, totaling 1 billion stars, planets, comets, asteroids, quasars, and other celestial objects.

Since the mission began, the ESA has issued three early releases of Gaia data, each of which has led to new research findings and more detailed maps of our galaxy. Based on the third release of mission data, known as Early Data Release 3 (Gaia EDR3), astronomers have created a map of the entire sky that includes updated data on celestial objects and manages to capture the total brightness and color of stars in our galaxy.

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Based on Kepler Data, There’s a 95% Chance of an Earth-Like Planet Within 20 Light-Years

Credit: NASA

In the past few decades, the study of exoplanets has grown by leaps and bounds, with 4296 confirmed discoveries in 3,188 systems and an additional 5,634 candidates awaiting confirmation. Because of this, scientists have been able to get a better idea about the number of potentially-habitable planets that could be out there. A popular target is stars like our own, which are known as G-type yellow dwarfs.

Recently, an international team of scientists (led by researchers from the NASA Ames Research Center) combined data from by the now-defunct Kepler Space Telescope and the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Gaia Observatory. What this revealed is that half of the Sun-like stars in our Universe could have rocky, potentially-habitable planets, the closest of which could be in our cosmic backyard!

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The Disk of the Milky Way is Warped Because it Already Collided With Another Galaxy

Credit and Copyright: Stefan Payne-Wardenaar; Magellanic Clouds: Robert Gendler/ESO

For decades, astronomers have been trying to understand why the Milky Way galaxy is warped the way it is. In recent years, astronomers have theorized that it could be our neighbors, the Magellanic Clouds, that are responsible for this phenomenon. According to this theory, these dwarf galaxies pull on the Milky Way’s dark matter, causing oscillations that pull on our galaxy’s supply of hydrogen gas.

However, according to new data from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) star-mapping Gaia Observatory, it is possible that this warp is the result of an ongoing collision with a smaller galaxy. These findings confirm that the warp in our galaxy is not static, but subject to change over time (aka. precession), and that this process is happening faster than anyone would have thought!

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Thanks to Gaia, we Now Know Exactly How Big Europa is

The fascinating surface of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa looms large in this newly-reprocessed color view, made from images taken by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. This is the color view of Europa from Galileo that shows the largest portion of the moon's surface at the highest resolution. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

Jupiter’s moon Europa continues to be a source of wonder and scientific intrigue. As one of the four Galilean Moons (so-named because of their founder, Galileo Galilee), Europa is one of Jupiter’s largest satellites and is considered one of the best bets for finding extraterrestrial life in the Solar System. And recently, it joined its cousins (Io and Callisto) in passing in front of a star.

This type of rare event (a stellar occultation) allows astronomers to conduct unique observations of a celestial body. In Europa’s case, the occultation took place in 2017 and allowed astronomers to make more precise measurements of Europa’s size, its position relative to Jupiter, and its true shape. All this was made possible by the ESA’s Gaia Observatory, which let astronomers know exactly when and where to look for the moon.

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Gaia Mission is Mapping Out the Bar at the Center of the Milky Way

Credit: Data: ESA/Gaia/DPAC, A. Khalatyan(AIP) & StarHorse team; Galaxy map: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC/Caltech)

Despite the many advancements made in the field of astronomy, astronomers still struggle to get an accurate assessment of the Milky Way Galaxy. Because we are embedded in its disk, it is much more difficult to assess its size, structure, and extent – unlike galaxies located millions (or billions) of light-years away. Luckily, thanks to improved instruments and tireless efforts, progress is being made all the time.

For instance, a team of astronomers recently combined the latest data obtained by the ESA’s Gaia observatory with the infrared and optical observations of other telescopes to start mapping the bar-shaped collection of stars at the center of our Milky Way. This constitutes the first time in history that astronomers have been able to make direct measurements of this barred structure.

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Voyager and Pioneer’s Grand Tour of the Milky Way

Artist concept of Voyager 1's View of Solar System. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Zachary and S. Redfield (Wesleyan University); Artist's Illustration Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI).

During the early 1990s, NASA’s Pioneer 10 and 11 probes became the first robotic missions to venture beyond Neptune. In 2012 and 2018, the Voyager 1 and 2 missions went even farther by crossing the heliopause and entering interstellar space. Eventually, these probes may reach another star system, where their special cargo (the Pioneer Plaques and the Golden Records) could find their way into the hands of another species.

Which raises an important question: where might these spacecraft eventually wander? To address this, Coryn Bailer-Jones of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and Davide Farnocchia of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently conducted a study that examined which star systems the Voyager and Pioneer probes will likely encounter as they drift through the Milky Way over the next few million years…

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A New Technique to Figure Out How Old Stars Are

Embry-Riddle researchers used data captured by the Gaia satellite (shown here in an artist’s impression) to determine the ages of stars. Credit: European Space Agency – D. Ducros, 2013
Embry-Riddle researchers used data captured by the Gaia satellite (shown here in an artist’s impression) to determine the ages of stars. Credit: European Space Agency – D. Ducros, 2013

Our understanding of the universe, and of the Milky Way, is built on an edifice of individual pieces of knowledge, all related to each other. But each of those pieces is only so accurate. The more accurate we can make one of the pieces of knowledge, the more accurate our understanding of the whole thing is.

The age of stars is one such piece. For years, astronomers have used a method of determining the age of stars that has a 10% to 20% margin of error. Now, a team of scientists from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has developed a new technique to determine the age of stars with a margin of error of only 3% to 5%.

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In the far Future our Sun will Turn Into a Solid Crystalline White Dwarf. Here’s How it’ll Happen

Artist's impression of the crystallization in the interior of a white dwarf star. Credit: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick

About fifty years ago, astronomers predicted what the ultimate fate of our Sun will be. According to the theory, the Sun will exhaust its hydrogen fuel billions of years from now and expand to become a Red Giant, followed by it shedding it’s outer layers and becoming a white dwarf. After a few more billion years of cooling, the interior will crystallize and become solid.

Until recently, astronomers had little evidence to back up this theory. But thanks to the ESA’s Gaia Observatory, astronomers are now able to observe hundreds of thousands of white dwarf stars with immense precision – gauging their distance, brightness and color. This in turn has allowed them to study what the future holds for our Sun when it is no longer the warm, yellow star that we know and love today.

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Gaia Sees Stars Out in Deep Space, Flying Between Galaxies

An artist's conception of a hypervelocity star that has escaped the Milky Way. Credit: NASA

In December of 2013, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the Gaia mission. Since that time, this space observatory has been busy observing over 1 billion astronomical objects in our galaxy and beyond – including stars, planets, comets, asteroids, quasars, etc. – all for the sake of creating the largest and most precise 3D space catalog ever made.

The ESA has also issued two data releases since then, both of which have led to some groundbreaking discoveries. The latest comes from the Leiden Observatory, where a team of astronomers used Gaia data to track what they thought were high-velocity stars being kicked out of the Milky Way, but which actually appeared to be moving into our galaxy.

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Astronomers are Tracking the Interstellar Asteroid ‘Oumuamua to its Home System

Artist’s impression of the first interstellar asteroid/comet, "Oumuamua". This unique object was discovered on 19 October 2017 by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid – I/2017 U1 (aka. ‘Oumuamua). Since that time, multiple studies have been conducted to determine the asteroid’s origin, what it encountered in interstellar space, its true nature (is it a comet or an asteroid?), and whether or not it is an alien spacecraft (it’s not).

In all this time, the question of  ‘Oumuamua’s origin has remained unanswered. Beyond theorizing that it came from the direction of the Lyra Constellation, possibly from the Vega system, there have been no definitive answers. Luckily, an international team led by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) have tracked ‘Oumuamua and narrowed down its point of origin to four possible star systems.

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