The satellite was lifted into space from
Timo Prusti, ESA's project scientist, likened the mission's goal to the switch from two-dimensional movies to 3D. At the moment, scientists are working with a largely "flat" map of the galaxy. "We want to have depth," he said.
Once Gaia arrives at the Lagrange 2 point some 1.5 million kilometers (930 million miles) from Earth, the satellite will unfold a 10-meter (33-feet) circular sun shield. This will protect Gaia's sensitive instruments from the rays of the sun, while simultaneously collecting solar energy to power the spacecraft.
Using its twin telescopes, Gaia will study the position, distance, movement, chemical composition and brightness of a billion stars in the galaxy, or roughly 1 percent of the
The data will help scientists determine the
"The prime importance of this mission is to do galactic archaeology," he said in a phone interview from
The project is the successor to ESA's Hipparcos satellite, which was launched in 1989 and measured the position of 100,000 stars in the
Gaia, which is named after an ancient Greek deity, will go far beyond that. Scientists have compared its measuring accuracy to measuring the diameter of a human hair from 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) away.
"There is still a lot that we don't understand about the
ESA has dubbed Gaia the "ultimate discovery machine" because its sophisticated instruments will allow scientists to look for small wobbles in stars' movements that indicate the presence of nearby planets.
"Those are the stars that people are going to go out and look for planets around, and ultimately for signs of life," said Fox.
Equipped with dozens of cameras capable of piecing together 1,000-megapixel images, scientists also expect to find hundreds of thousands of previously undiscovered asteroids and comets inside our solar system.
Beyond that, scientists hope that Gaia can also be used to test a key part of
"Almost all the fields of astrophysics will be affected," said Jordi.
Science operations will begin in about 4 ½ months. The
If Gaia is still operational after that, scientists say they might extend its mission for up to two years.
Coto contributed from
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