Europe's billion-star surveyor, Gaia, is due to be launched into space on Thursday 19 December 2013, where it will embark on its mission to create a highly accurate 3D map of our galaxy.
The University of Leicester contribution to this international project is led by Professor Martin Barstow, and includes Dr Duncan Fyfe and Dr Patricio Ortiz. The overall UK Gaia Project is led by Professor Gerry Gilmore from the University of Cambridge.
By repeatedly observing a billion stars, with its billion-pixel video camera, the Gaia mission will allow astronomers to determine the origin and evolution of our galaxy whilst also testing gravity, mapping our inner solar system, and uncovering tens of thousands of previously unseen objects, including asteroids in our solar system, planets around nearby stars, and supernovae in other galaxies.
Gaia will map the stars from an orbit around the Sun, near a location some 1.5 million km beyond Earth's orbit known as the L2 Lagrangian point. The spacecraft will spin slowly, sweeping its two telescopes across the entire sky and focusing their light simultaneously onto a single digital camera, the largest ever flown in space. The 'eye' of Gaia's camera has the most sensitive set of light detectors ever assembled for a space mission.
Professor Martin Barstow from the University of Leicester, who is leading the Leicester team on the project, said: "Gaia is one of the most exciting space missions I have worked on during my career. Its survey of the Galaxy will be in unprecedented detail and the precision of the distance measurements it makes will transform astronomy and our understanding of the Universe."
Once Gaia starts routine operations, around Easter 2014, astronomers will have the challenge of dealing with a flood of data. Even after being compressed by software, the data produced by the five-year mission will fill over 30,000 CD ROMs.
This data will be transmitted 'raw' and will need processing on Earth to turn it into a calibrated set of measurements that can be freely used by the astronomical community. The cutting edge computer technology developed at the Cambridge Data Processing Centre will be integral to this process.
The first Gaia science will be discoveries of new sources -- supernovae, extreme variable stars and blazars -- which will be discovered at the Cambridge processing centre, and immediately made available for study by both professionals and the interested public.
Gaia will discover many new sources which are bright enough for amateurs, and schools with access to public robotic telescopes, to become the first to confirm and obtain more information.
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