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Lift-off for Billion-Star Surveyor

UK scientists and engineers are celebrating today after the successful launch into space of the European Space Agency’s GAIA mission that will revolutionise our understanding of the Universe. Once Gaia is operational in 2014 the UK will be in the front line in processing it’s images, which will be the key to the discovery of many thousands of transient stars and supernovae: these will be made immediately available to schools and the public for their participation in the research.

Gaia mapping the stars of the Milky Way
(Credit: ESA/ATG medialab; background: ESO/S. Brunier)

Blasting off on a Soyuz rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, Gaia is destined to create the most accurate map yet of the Milky Way. By making accurate measurements of the positions and motions of 1% of the total population of roughly 100 billion stars, it will answer questions about the origin and evolution of our home Galaxy.

The UK Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) helped the set-up of the data applications centre and STFC’s current support involves the UK exploitation of the scientific data to be yielded from the mission. UK participation in the mission itself has been funded by the UK Space Agency and scientists and engineers from around the UK have played key roles in the design and build of Gaia.

Dr Peter Allan, Head of the Space Data Division at STFC’s RAL Space said:

“We are incredibly pleased that the launch went off without a hitch. This was the smoothest launch I have ever seen. Once Gaia is up and running, early in 2014, we expect that the photometric data processing software to which we have contributed as part of the UK-led team will offer the first opportunity ever to precisely measure the brightness of the billion objects that GAIA will see, while contributions from the rest of Europe will chart the positions, distances and movements of those one billion stars. This will let us understand our true place in the Milky Way, our home galaxy. In addition we expect to discover hundreds of thousands of new celestial objects, such as extra-solar planets, brown dwarfs, supernovae, asteroids, and of course, things that we have not even imagined.”

Professor Gerry Gilmore, from the University of Cambridge and UK Principal Investigator for Gaia, said:

“Gaia will be a revolution in our knowledge of the local Universe. For the first time we will have a fair sample of what is out there, where it is, how it is moving, how unseen (dark) matter is distributed, where and when stars formed and where and when the chemical elements of which we are made were created. Gaia will make a huge step towards understanding how the Milky Way came to be formed, and evolved into what we see today. For the first time, we will be able to see the Milky Way in 3-D. In fact in 6-D – where stars are, and how they are moving.”

Gaia is now en route towards an orbit around a gravitationally-stable virtual point in space called L2, some 1.5 million kilometres beyond Earth as seen from the Sun.

A four-month commissioning phase will start on the way to L2, during which all of the systems and instruments will be turned on, checked and calibrated. Then Gaia will be ready to begin its five-year science mission.

Once Gaia starts routine operations astronomers will have the challenge of dealing with a flood of data. Even after being compressed by software, the data produced by the five-year mission will fill over 30 000 CD ROMs. This data will be transmitted 'raw' and will need processing on Earth to turn it into a calibrated set of measurements that can be freely used by the astronomical community. The cutting edge computer technology developed at the Cambridge Data Processing Centre will be key to this process.

Notes for editors

The UK and Gaia

The UK has two major roles in the Gaia mission: it built the spacecraft, and will deliver the science.

UK industry and science institutes won some €80 million of industrial contracts to build Gaia, with leadership roles in building the heart of Gaia, the array of 106 CCDs, the control avionics and the critical micro-propulsion system, as well as playing a critical role in the development of the Gaia spectrometer.

Gaia data will be processed and analysed ready for release to the scientific community and public at six data centres, including one in the UK, operating software developed and tested by a consortium of 400 people across Europe, including some 50 people at 6 Institutes in the UK (Cambridge, UCL-MSSL, Leicester, Edinburgh, The Open University, STFC RAL Space and Bristol).

Astrium at Stevenage was responsible for the spacecraft's super precision guidance and control system as well as the powerful on-board computers needed to process the torrent of data it will produce

The 'eye' of Gaia's camera has the most sensitive set of light detectors ever assembled for a space mission. It is also the largest focal plane array ever to be flown in space and contains a mosaic of 106 large area, high performance Charged Coupled Device (CCD) CCD91-72 image sensors, which are custom designed, manufactured and tested by UK company e2v. Without these image sensors the Gaia mission would not be possible. These detectors were calibrated with the Gaia electronics at Mullard Space Science Laboratory.

SciSys UK Ltd is responsible for the spacecraft’s operational simulator.

University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL) has a major role in spectroscopic science, and in conjunction with The Open University, is involved in software development including architecture, integration and validation, pre-processing development, spectra extraction and calibration.

The UK hosts the Cambridge data processing centre, where the Gaia imaging data are processed. These data provide brightness, colour, and position information, which enable the core Gaia science, determining distances motions and the intrinsic properties of each star. Gaia also has a spectrograph, to measure the radial velocities of 300 million stars, delivering their complete 3-D positions and 3-D velocities. The spectra will be processed at the French data centre, using software in part developed in the UK.


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Lucy Stone 
STFC Deputy Media Manager
Tel: 01235 445627
Mobile: 07920 870125

Last updated: 18 December 2015


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