As many of you know, I'm a huge advocate of the American space program. I try to inspire the pride we should have in our past accomplishments and garner support for our future endeavors. But there are times when political boundaries must be dropped and scientific achievement as a whole must be applauded. And so it is with no apologies that I want to discuss an exciting mission of the
Established in 1975, the ESA, headquartered in
By combining the resources - financial and intellectual - of its members, the ESA can define challenges and obtain results beyond the capabilities of any one country.
Not all countries in the
Its mission? To study a billion stars.
You read that correctly. One billion stars. And as impressive as that sounds, it still represents less than 1 percent of the number of stars in the
This venture will create the most accurate stellar map to date and will answer questions about the origin and structure of our home galaxy.
"Gaia represents a dream of astronomers throughout history, right back to the pioneering observations of the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus, who cataloged the relative positions of around a thousand stars with only naked-eye observations and simple geometry," said
The mission is scheduled to last five years. During its tenure, the Gaia spacecraft will scan each of the billion stars an average of 70 times. Each star's physical properties brightness, temperature and chemical composition -will be recorded.
But even more intriguing is that Gaia will monitor the positions of these stars. By using the slight change in perspective as Gaia orbits the sun every year, these stars' distances and motions can be accurately measured.
All of this data allows each star to tell us its story. When the mission is completed, this massive anthology will allow scientists to even understand our galaxy's final destiny.
Gaia will provide some amazing secondary information as well. Thousands of supernovae, the explosive end to some stars, are expected to be discovered. Extrasolar planets, dying stars and even asteroids in our own solar system will also be revealed.
The mission's unrivaled data archive will exceed 1 million gigabytes - roughly the same as 200,000 DVDs worth of data. The task of analyzing the information falls to the
Just imagine it: We live in but one galaxy among 200 billion in the universe. Our galaxy contains about 250 billion stars and, using current data, 8.8 billion Earth-like planets in their stars' habitable zone. And we now have the technology to study - in detail - 1 billion of these stars.
That is either extraordinary or humbling. Or perhaps both.
It does seem that the more we learn, the more we realize we don't know. As far as we've come, we have taken but the smallest of steps in the journey of understanding our universe and our place in it.
In the words of the philosopher Avvaiyar, "What we have learned is like a handful of earth; what we have yet to learn is like the whole world."
With the New Year comes the list of resolutions. Many of these involve improvements to the body - losing weight, going to the gym, eating better and so on. But why not make a resolution to also improve the mind? And a great way to do that is to learn about the universe in which we live and become an amateur astronomer! Let's get started ...
Of particular interest this month is the planet Jupiter (pictured above), the largest planet in the solar system. Jupiter will be in opposition in January, meaning that it will be 180 degrees from the sun, or crossing the meridian (north-south line) near midnight. This makes for great viewing opportunities.
Rising in the east at sunset is the constellation of Orion. We look for the mighty hunter by identifying his three belt stars and then completing an asterism (connect-the-dot) picture by finding two bright stars both above and below his belt, giving us a picture that looks almost like an hourglass.
Two of the stars in Orion are worth mentioning and offer us the opportunity to explore the relationship between temperature and color.
Temperature may be thought of as a measure of the internal energy of a material. As this energy gets higher, the atoms within it move faster, which can cause light to be emitted at a higher frequency.
The true relationship between temperature and color is the opposite of what most of us see in our homes. Typically, faucets have blue to denote cold and red to denote hot. But in nature blue is much hotter and more energetic than red.
The star in the southwest corner of the asterism of Orion is called Rigel, which lies at a distance of about 800 light-years. Your eyes may notice that this star has a bluish color, indicating that it is very hot. Indeed, Rigel has a surface temperature of 22,000 degrees Fahrenheit, as compared to our own sun, which has a surface temperature of a mere 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
But the star in the northeast corner of the asterism of Orion, Betelgeuse, has a very prominent reddish color, meaning it is a cool star. At a distance of only 640 light-years, Betelegeuse has a chilly surface temperature of 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Keep looking up in 2014!
As many of you know, I'm a huge advocate of the American space program. I try to inspire the pride we should have in our past accomplishments and garner support for our future endeavors.
But there are times when political boundaries must be dropped and scientific achievement as a whole must be applauded. And so it is with no apologies that I want to discuss an exciting mission of the