Going gaga for Gaia: Polish Astronomers help map out the Milky Way

Gaia’s sky in colour European Space Agency

Some of the most beautiful and detailed images ever taken of the Milky Way have been released by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Gaia space telescope, the data from which will be used to create the most comprehensive maps of our galaxy to date with the help of Polish astronomers.

The new data (Gaia DR2), containing valuable information about the position, distance from the Earth and speed of over a billion stars, was released by the ESA in April and is now being used to create the maps. 

Gaia is an unmanned spacecraft of the European Space Agency (ESA), designed for precise astrometric measurements. It was launched in December 2013 from the spaceport in French Guiana and began its five-year observation in June 2014.

The main purpose of Gaia is to create a precise, three-dimensional map of the Milky Way. The exact structure of the galactic disk in which the solar system is located will be a reference system for all future observations of the sky.

The data provided by Gaia will also allow researchers to study groups of stars at the same distance from the Earth – such as star clusters and double star systems – as well as those where the gravitational interaction is very weak due to the distance between objects.

According to the Astronomical Observatory of the University of Warsaw, nearly 500 scientists and software engineers are involved in the work. Members of the team come from 20 European countries, including Poland, as well as Algeria, Brazil, Israel and the U.S.

Dr. Łukasz Wyrzykowski from the Astronomical Observatory of the University of Warsaw
(Photo by Marcin Obara/PAP)

The Polish contribution to the project is primarily the work of Dr. Łukasz Wyrzykowski from the Astronomical Observatory of the University of Warsaw, who specialises in the search for supernovae and lensing black holes, Dr. Arkadiusz Hypki, who creates tools for data analysis, and Dr. Toni Santana-Ross from Adam Mickiewicz University, who conducts research on asteroids.

According to Dr. Wyrzykowski, the state of knowledge of our galaxy before Gaia DR2 can be compared to walking in the forest with one blind eye.

The Galactic census takes shape
(European Space Agency)

He said: "Although we can see all the trees, we are not able to say which are closer and which are further away - which also involves the risk of bumping into one of them. 

“Gaia DR2 is the missing second eye, which allows us to see distances to the stars.”