Images of space are valuable for researchers to find out more about our solar system, our galaxy, and way beyond. But us regular folks enjoy them as well because they’re often quite an eye candy. The European Space Agency’s Gaia observatory has just released the most precise and detailed 3D map of the Milky Way to date. It doesn’t only look gorgeous of course, but it also takes the astronomers to both the future and the past of our galaxy.
Astronomers from the Gaia Data Processing and Analysis Consortium (DPAC) looked at the stars from our galaxy’s “anticenter,” or the very edge of our galaxy. This allowed them to see the evidence of the Milky Way’s past, “Computer models predicted that the disc of the Milky Way will grow larger with time as new stars are born,” ESA writes. “The new data allow us to see the relics of the 10 billion-year-old ancient disc and so determine its smaller extent compared to the Milky Way’s current disc size.”
The latest data also revealed that there is a component of slow-moving stars above the plane of our galaxy. They are heading downwards towards the plane, according to ESA, and there’s a component of fast-moving stars below the plane that are moving upwards. “This extraordinary pattern had not been anticipated before,” ESA explains. “It could be the result of the near-collision between the Milky Way and the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy that took place in our galaxy’s more recent past.”
Gaia astronomers were also able to measure the acceleration of the solar system and calculate the journey of the stars for the next 400,000 years. Here’s what it will look like, according to the latest data:
“Gaia has been staring at the heavens for the past seven years, mapping the positions and velocities of stars,” said Caroline Harper, the head of space science at the UK Space Agency. “Thanks to its telescopes we have in our possession today the most detailed billion-star 3D atlas ever assembled.”
Nicholas Walton, a member of the ESA Gaia science team at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, told the Guardian that the latest data helps astronomers to get “a very detailed map of the local universe that’s in three dimensions for stars out to a few hundred light years.”