The Newest and Largest Map of the Milky Way

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Scientific American has announced that the European Space Agency (ESA) just released the largest and most detailed map of our home galaxy (image pictured above).

Catalogued by the agency’s Gaia space observatory, which was launched into Earth orbit in 2013, it pinpoints the position of up to 1.1 billion stars, of which 400 million are newly discovered.

[The map] is expected to transform what astronomers know about the Galaxy—allowing researchers to discover new extrasolar planets, examine the distribution of dark matter, and fine-tune models of how stars evolve.

Hundreds of astronomers began to access the database as soon as it was made publicly available on September 14, says Gaia project scientist Timo Prusti, who works at ESA’s European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. “My advice to the astronomical community is: please enjoy with us,” he said at a press conference in Madrid.

Gaia has already found more stars than researchers expected, which suggests that the Milky Way may be slightly bigger than previously estimated, says Gisella Clementini, a Gaia researcher at the Bologna Astronomical Observatory in Italy.

This is only the first of several data releases, as Gaia still has another twenty-eight months as part of its mission to map the galaxy; according to its Wikipedia article (which cites the official ESA page), the telescope is still expected to detect “thousands to tens of thousands of Jupiter-sized exoplanets beyond the Solar System, 500,000 quasars and tens of thousands of new asteroids and comets within the Solar System.

And to think that Gaia’s mission will ultimately cover only one percent of the Milky Way’s total population of astronomical objects (stars, planets, comets, etc.). In terms of stars alone, our galaxy has an unfathomable 100 billion, each with an average of 2.5 planets  — and there are still 100 billion other galaxies out there.

Not to diminish ESA’s incredible achievement, but it is incredible to think that this overwhelmingly massive find is but an infinitesimal drop in the bucket of this universe.

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