Cayenne – The European Space Agency launched a new satellite, Thursday, which is expected to “boldly go where no satellite has gone before,” providing the most accurate three-dimensional map of our part of the Milky Way.
“Space, the final frontier,” as declared by James T Kirk in Star Trek’s episode log, is slowly, but surely, being explored. Little by little humankind breaks down barriers.
News that the European Space Agency successfully launched a satellite, Gaia, the ultimate discovery machine, capable of providing a three-dimensional map of Earth’s part of the Milky Way, is awesome.
It will pave the way for more exploration and detailed mapping.
The satellite was lifted into space from French Guiana at 6:12 a.m. (0912 GMT; 4:12 a.m. EST) aboard a Russian-made Soyuz rocket, the agency said. It is heading to a stable orbit on the opposite side of the Earth from the sun, known as Lagrange 2, where it will arrive in about a month’s time.
It may be a European satellite but the above news shows it is an international venture. It is also a costly one. The cost of the mission is 740 million euros ($1-billion). It was delayed by about a month due to a technical problem and has life expectancy of five years.
Scientists who currently only have two-dimensional maps of our area of the Milky Way have likened the technological advance as the difference between ordinary movies and those viewed in 3D.
Lagrange 2 point is some 930 million miles from Earth, hence the two month travelling time. Once Gaia reaches its destination it will unfold a 33-foot circular sun shield to protect its sensitive instruments from the rays of the sun. At the same time the shield will collect solar energy to power the spacecraft. Awesome again.
Jos de Bruijne the deputy project scientist of this space initiative explains “the data will help scientists determine the Milky Way’s origin and evolution.” In a phone interview he said:
“The prime importance of this mission is to do galactic archaeology. “It will reveal the real history of our galaxy.”
ESA’s Hipparcos satellite, an earlier mission in 1989, measured the position of 100,000 stars in the Milky Way. Gaia will go much further.
Again scientists use a comparison. Gaia’s accuracy will be like “measuring the diameter of a human hair from 600 miles away.”
Scientists hope that the sensitive intruments on board Gaia will test “Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity that predicts ‘dips’ and ‘warps’ in space caused by the gravity of stars and planets.”
Around a billion stars in our space neck of the woods will be surveyed. A 1,000-megapixel camera will be used to hunt for planets, asteroids and comets beyond our Solar System, enabling accrate three-dimensional mapping.
You can follow Gaia at the ESA blog here.