What is Gaia? The ESA’s Data Dump Could Change Astronomy Forever

Amid a series of setbacks with NASA’s James Webb Telescope, the astronomy community is understandably bummed. This much-hyped ‘scope could allow scientists to peer into the atmospheres of exoplanets like the ones found in TRAPPIST-1 with unprecedented detail. The problem is, the mission is having a really hard time getting off the ground, literally and figuratively.

But the second data release from a European Space Agency project — aptly named Gaia, after the ancient Greek goddess of Mother Earth — could be the astronomy revolution no one saw coming, save for a few, including the American Museum of Natural History’s Jackie Faherty.

Faherty, an astrophysicist, tells Inverse on episode four of I Need My Space (available now on Apple Podcasts), that this massive data dump — which drops Wednesday morning at 6 a.m. Eastern — could be even more extensive than JWST. It just hasn’t gotten much publicity in the states.

“Gaia I think, was always going to rival or exceed JWST in some ways,” she tells me on INMS. “Because it’s a European mission from ESA, very few people in the United States are paying attention to it. Even astronomers who know it’s coming are not preparing like I think they should, because the European missions have far less publicity.”

The Gaia space observatory orbits the sun, remaining about 1.5 million kilometers (roughly 93,200 miles). Launched in 2013, the ESA says the project’s mission is “to create the most accurate map of the Galaxy to date.” So far, it seems well on its way to doing that.

Gaia’s first data set, made public in September 2016, provided information about the luminosity and location of about 1.1 billion stars. The ESA writes that in the second data release, the spacecraft will provide the “positions and brightnesses for nearly 1.7 billion stars, distances, motions and color information for 1.3 billion, and a number of additional parameters for smaller subsets of stars and other celestial objects.”

“[INMS listeners] may have never even heard of this mission, I will tell you out of the gate this revolutionizes astronomy,” Faherty tells me. “It’s the most ambitious astronomy mission of all-time. Far more ambitious than JWST, arguably, and it will change everything we know about stars in our galaxy.”



Wednesday’s release will be celebrated in its own way on at a hackathon in New York City, which Faherty is attending along with other astrophysicists in astronomers. Together, they’ll be figuring out how to best synthesize this massive amount of information. It’ll be a herculean effort for sure, but one Faherty feels it’ll all be worth the sleepless nights. After all, the result is kind of the biggest deal there is: a true map of the Milky Way.

“It’s not just going to fill the hole of JWST,” Faherty says. “It’s its own magical new thing which everyone should be excited about.”

Check out more from the conversation with Jackie Faherty in the fourth episode of I Need My Space. It’d mean the world to us if you subscribed, rated, and reviewed INMS.

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