The Milky Way, Revealed as Never Before

Apr 26, 2018

By Lee Billings

From before dawn until sunset on April 25, fueled by coffee and pastries (followed by steak and champagne), dozens of astrophysicists took over the third floor of the Flatiron Institute in downtown New York City, poring over gigabytes of fresh data from a once-in-a-lifetime space probe destined to forever change our understanding of the cosmos. Most of the scientists gathered in a cramped conference room, communing over laptops displaying arcane astroglyphs, but others migrated to breakout sessions scattered throughout the floor—sprawling belly-down on carpets or scrawling equations on whiteboards, occasionally muttering curses at server time-outs or compiler crashes that stymied their efforts to be among the world’s first to make dazzling new discoveries.

The probe is the European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite, a $1 billion mission that launched in 2013 to map our galaxy with remarkable precision; the fresh data came as Gaia released its second dataset. Based on 22 months of observations, the new release catalogues the positions, motions, brightnesses and colors of an astonishing 1.3 billion stars—roughly 1 percent of the estimated 100 billion stars that make up the Milky Way. At their best, the spacecraft’s measurements are akin to Earthbound observers discerning the position of a penny on the surface of the moon.

“A curtain has opened, and the Milky Way is now revealed,” says Jackie Faherty, an astronomer at the American Museum of Natural History who arrived at the Flatiron shortly after 5am for the start of a 3-day gathering at the Institute’s Center for Computational Astrophysics (CCA) to delve deep into Gaia’s enormous data dump. “Today felt like the start of a gigantic race that’s going to last the rest of my career—or, really, until I’m dead.” What’s happening here is unprecedented, she says. “Any scientific question you could have about the galaxy will be linked to this dataset.”

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