Mapping the galaxy: To boldly go where no data miners have gone before
The biggest archive of celestial objects ever created is being made accessible to researchers and space enthusiasts for probing the depths of the Milky Way, assisted by advanced data mining and analysis tools developed by an EU-funded project.
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So far, the archive consists of more than 1 billion space objects from asteroids and planets to stars and quasars. But that is just the beginning of a far-reaching initiative to explore our galaxy and beyond in unprecedented depth and detail as part of the European Space Agencys Gaia mission, which is building the largest, most precise 3D map of the Milky Way to date.
Once complete, the archive will contain more than 2 billion space objects, all accessible for meticulous research and analysis using advanced tools from the EU-funded GENIUS project that are set to enable major astronomical discoveries.
The Gaia archive will eventually contain approximately 2 % of the 100 billion objects in the Milky Way. That may seem small but for the first time we can map a significant portion of the galaxy in 3D detail, says GENIUS coordinator Xavier Luri of the University of Barcelona in Spain.
Purely coincidentally, the mapped area largely coincides with galactic maps depicting the voyages of the USS Enterprise in Star Trek. Indeed, with all this data we will certainly be able to explore strange new worlds and boldly go where data mining tools have never gone before.
With the GAIA satellite taking tens of billions of astrometric measurements to help explain the history, composition and evolution of the Milky Way, the work conducted as part of the GENIUS project is crucial to enabling researchers to find, visualise and study the vast amounts of data.
The powerful tools, operating on top of the Gaia archives data centres, enable information to be sorted and searched in real time. This effectively allows researchers to take a trip through our galactic neighbourhood looking at interstellar distances and the brightness, density and size of far away stars and planets.
A 3D real-time space voyage
As part of related outreach efforts, space enthusiasts and the general public are able to take a similar cosmic voyage thanks to Gaia Sky, free real-time, 3D, astronomy visualisation software developed by a former student of Luris.
Travelling through space in Gaia Sky is like being in a sci-fi movie but what youre seeing is not the product of a Hollywood studio it uses real data from the Gaia mission, extracted from the archive with the help of GENIUS tools, to show our galaxy and all the planets, stars, asteroids and objects around us in real time, Luri says.
Gaiaverse.eu, a multi-language website launched by the GENIUS team, provides further details about the groundbreaking work on the Gaia data and public access to the archive, helping to engage people globally in astronomy and physics research.
While the GENIUS partners remain focused on enabling the study of space data, Luri notes that the data mining and analysis technology, as well as the processes developed by the project, have broader applications across many scientific disciplines.
Additionally, the project helped strengthen cooperation, knowledge and data sharing with the Japan-led Nano-JASMINE and JASMINE missions, the only other two astrometric missions currently being conducted to study the formation and composition of the galaxy.
The data we are obtaining today about our Milky Way and beyond, including neighbouring galaxies such as Magellanic Clouds, are providing insights that were unimaginable a few decades ago when we were measuring interstellar distances from data on just a few thousand stars, Luri says.
The Gaia archive may serve as a reference point for measuring the galaxy for decades or centuries to come but who knows where the exploration of space will lead us tomorrow.