Institute of Astronomy

Gaia's first year of scientific observations

Published on 26/08/2015 

On  Friday, 21 August, ESA’s billion-star surveyor, Gaia, completed its first year of science observations in its main survey mode.

After launch on 19 December 2013 and a six-month long in-orbit commissioning period, the satellite started routine scientific operations on 25 July 2014. Located at the Lagrange point L2, 1.5 million km from Earth, Gaia surveys stars and many other astronomical objects as it spins, observing circular swathes of the sky. By repeatedly measuring the positions of the stars with extraordinary accuracy, Gaia can tease out their distances and motions through the Milky Way galaxy.

For the first 28 days, Gaia operated in a special scanning mode that sampled great circles on the sky, but always including the ecliptic poles. This meant that the satellite observed the stars in those regions many times, providing an invaluable database for Gaia’s initial calibration. At the end of that phase, on 21 August, Gaia commenced its main survey operation, employing a scanning law designed to achieve the best possible coverage of the whole sky.

Since the start of its routine phase, the satellite recorded 272 billion positional or astrometric measurements 54.4 billion brightness or photometric data points, and 5.4 billion spectra.

The Gaia team have spent a busy year processing and analysing these data, en route towards the development of Gaia’s main scientific products, consisting of enormous public catalogues of the positions, distances, motions and other properties of more than a billion stars. Because of the immense volumes of data and their complex nature, this requires a huge effort from expert scientists and software developers distributed across Europe, combined in Gaia’s Data Processing and Analysis Consortium (DPAC).

“The past twelve months have been very intense, but we are getting to grips with the data, and are looking forward to the next four years of nominal operations,” says Timo Prusti, Gaia project scientist at ESA.

“We are just a year away from Gaia's first scheduled data release, an intermediate catalogue planned for the summer of 2016. With the first year of data in our hands, we are now halfway to this milestone, and we’re able to present a few preliminary snapshots to show that the spacecraft is working well and that the data processing is on the right track.”

Examples of the science achieved in the first year of Gaia:

- the Gaia team has been able to measure the parallax for an initial sample of two million stars;

-  Gaia has been able to detect whether any of the stars have changed their brightness, and in doing so, has started to discover some very interesting 'transient' astronomical objects;

- Gaia has detected a wealth of asteroids, the small rocky bodies that populate our solar system, mainly between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter;

Read the full press release from ESA

Page last updated: 26 August 2015 at 14:29