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Gaia, Hipparcos, and 3D star maps

Speed read
  • ESA publishes billion star catalog from Gaia satellite.
  • But before Gaia, Hipparcos charted the Milky Way.
  • 100,000 stars is an amazing, interactive 3D visualization from Hipparcos data. 

The European Space Agency (ESA) released long awaited galactic images from the Global Astrometric Interferometer for Astrophysics (GAIA) on September 15. 

Gaia's view. A visualization of how Gaia scanned the sky during its first 14 months of operations, between July 2014 and September 2015.The oval represents a projection of the celestial sphere, with different portions of the sky gradually appearing, according to when and how frequently they were scanned by Gaia. Courtesy ESA.

Thanks to Gaia – and the supercomputers and 400 or so humans in the associated Data Processing and Analysis Consortium (DPAC) helping to process the massive datasets – we now have the best map of our home galaxy every made.

So far GAIA has charted about one billion stars, and will assemble the most detailed 3D visualization of the Milky Way in the months to come.

Launched in late 2013 and currently orbiting the sun nearly 1.5 million km away from Earth, Gaia streams back about 40 Gigabytes per day. Over the full life of the mission, Gaia will amass 73 Terabytes.

But before Gaia, there was Hipparcos. Hipparcos was launched in 1989 and remained in operation until 1993. In 2015, Hervé Bouy from the Center for Astrobiology (CSIC-INTA) in Spain and João Alves from the University of Vienna, Austria brought the Hipparcos data to life, rendering the star maps in 3D. 

Star maps. 100,000 stars is an interactive visualization of our stellar neighborhood. It shows the location of 119,617 nearby stars derived from multiple sources, including the 1989 Hipparcos mission. Courtesy Chrome Experiments; ESA.

Among many advantages, a 3D view eliminates the interference brought by companion stars, bringing hidden structures into focus. The 3D visualization includes all the stars within 1500 light years of our sun.

So while we wait for Gaia's update, take a look at this Chrome experiment, and let’s fly through the 100,000 stars in our immediate stellar neighborhood. 

But be warned: Do not use this visualization for interstellar navigation.

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