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Europe's €740 million star-hunting telescope 'Gaia' enters Earth orbit

Data from the craft will be used to create the most accurate 3D map of the Milky Way yet, allowing astronomers to determine the origin and evolution of the galaxy.


Gaia lifts-off from the ESA Spaceport in French Guiana last month [Image ESA–S. Corvaja]

EUROPE’S MULTI-MILLION euro star-hunting telescope ‘Gaia’ has slotted into its operational orbit as it prepares to harvest data for the most detailed map yet of the Milky Way.

The telescope was launched from ESA’s base in French Guiana three weeks ago and journeyed towards L2, a gravitationally stable point in space some 1.5 million kilometres from Earth.

After a final manoeuvre yesterday, Gaia settled into a 180-day orbit around L2, the European Space Agency said.

A small course correction will be made next week to complete the positioning manoeuvre.

“Entering orbit around L2 is a rather complex endeavour, achieved by firing Gaia’s thrusters in such a way as to push the spacecraft in the desired direction whilst keeping the Sun away from the delicate science instruments,” said spacecraft operations manager David Milligan.

The instruments on board the €740 million device, the most sophisticated space telescope ever built by Europe, will now be tested and calibrated for another four months, before entering the five-year operational phase.

(Youtube: European Space Agency)

Gaia is scheduled to collect data on a billion stars, charting their positions and motion, temperature, luminosity and composition.

This will yield the most accurate 3D map of the Milky Way yet, and allow astronomers to determine the origin and evolution of our galaxy, according to the space agency.

The craft will sweep its two telescopes across the entire sky and focus their light simultaneously onto a single digital camera — the largest ever flown in space with nearly a billion pixels.

The telescope will observe each star an average of 70 times, said the ESA, “after which the data archive will exceed one million gigabytes, equivalent to about 200,000 DVDs worth of data.”

- © AFP, 2014

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