New 3D map of Milky Way will be 1,000-times better than any before

14 Sep 2016

The European Space Agency (ESA) is set to release today (14 September) a 3D map of the Milky Way that will eventually contain over 1bn stars and will be 1,000-times more complete than any previously existing map.

This new 3D map has been a number of years in the making – the Gaia probe, in its orbit around the sun, has been taking photos of the Milky Way since launching in 2013.

An incredible feat of engineering, Gaia is the largest camera ever launched into space. With a resolution of 1bn pixels, it is considered so powerful that it is capable of gauging the diameter of a human hair from a distance of 1,000 km.

Future Human

Now, at the half-way point in Gaia’s five-year mission, the ESA is set to release a vastly updated 3D map of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, which will be 1,000-times more accurate than any that have preceded it.

Showing the incomprehensible scale of the universe, this superior 3D map covers an area 100,000 light years in diameter – still only 1pc of the Milky Way’s stellar population.

This does not mean that the map will be limiting for astronomers. One of the Gaia team members, François Mignard, described the new map as a “new chapter in astronomy”.

“Over the centuries, we have sought to catalogue the content of the skies,” Mignard said in conversation with AFP. “But never have we achieved anything so complete or precise – it is a massive undertaking.”


The Gaia probe before its launch in 2013. Image: ESA/Airbus DS

Map to be completed in 2017

Mignard added that astronomers will now have a wealth of information to sift through for years to come, hopefully contributing to a number of major astronomical discoveries.

By using the map, astronomers will be able to calculate the distance between Earth and each of the stars photographed by Gaia, starting with the 2m stars that will be part of the first data dump, taking place today.

The Gaia team has said that, at this early stage, the map will be 20-times better than previous maps.

The completed map of 1bn stars is expected to be completed by the end of 2017. In the meantime, it is expected that the probe will detect tens of thousands of undiscovered objects and “thousands of new worlds”, according to Yale University astronomer Gregory Laughlin.

Gaia Milky Way map

The first map to be released by the Gaia researchers spanning a distance of 100,000 light years. Image via ESA/Gaia/DPAC

The ESA admitted last month that the Gaia mission has faced a number of challenges since it launched in December 2013, including freezing optics, stray light on instruments and ‘micro-clanks’.

Occurring during the thermal expansion and contraction of the spacecraft as it travels through space, these micro-clanks can result in small inaccuracies in the timing and positions of the stars.

However, Gaia’s project scientist Timo Prusti has said these can easily be corrected with a software fix.

Milky Way image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic