The European Space Agency (ESA) on Thursday launched an advanced telescope designed to detect a billion stars and provide the most detailed map yet of the Milky Way and our place in it.
The Gaia telescope was successfully hoisted by a Soyuz-STB-Fregat rocket from the ESA’s space base in Kourou, French Guiana, the agency reported in a Webcast.
The star hunter separated from the last of the rocket’s four stages 42 minutes after launch, and mission controllers said everything was fine.
The 740 million euro (US$1.02 billion) device, the most sophisticated space telescope ever built by Europe, aims at building an “astronomical census” of a billion stars, or around 1 percent of all the stars in the Milky Way.
By repeating the observations as many as 70 times throughout its mission, Gaia can help astronomers calculate the distance, speed, direction and motion of these stars and build a 3D map of our section of the galaxy.
The stellar haul will be 50 times greater than the bounty provided by Hipparcos, a telescope of the early 1990s, whose work provided a gold standard reference guide still widely used by professional astronomers today.
“Gaia is the culmination of nine years of intensive work, which will enable exceptional advances in our understanding of the universe, its history and laws,” said Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of France’s National Center of Space Studies (CNES), which is taking a lead role in the mission.
“We are at the dawn of revolutionising our understanding of the history of the Milky Way,” said Stephane Israel, chairman and CEO of Arianespace, which launched the satellite.
Gaia will also help in the search for planets beyond our solar system — as many as 50,000 so-called “extrasolar” planets could be spotted during the satellite’s five-year life, astronomers said.
Gaia will also observe the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter to help the search for any rocks that may one day threaten Earth, and keep a watch for distant exploding stars, called supernovae, which are rarely observed in real time.
The 2.03 tonne telescope “is so sensitive that it can measure the equivalent of the diameter of a hair at a distance of 1,000km,” CNES says on its Web site.
“If Hipparcos could measure the angle that corresponds to the height of an astronaut on the moon, Gaia will be able to measure his thumbnail,” ESA said.
Gaia will start its star survey in May after taking up position at the so-called Lagrange point “L2,” 1.5 million kilometers from the Earth, which offers year-round observation of the cosmos without the view being disturbed by the sun, Earth or moon.