02.05.2018 change 02.05.2018

A new map of the Milky Way; Polish researchers take part in the project

Photo: Fotolia Photo: Fotolia

The largest and most accurate maps of our Galaxy - the Milky Way - will be created based on the data collected by the ESA`s Gaia space telescope. Polish astronomers have an important role in the project.

The new catalogue (Gaia DR2) containing valuable information about the position, distance from the Earth and speed of over a billion stars was released by the European Space Agency (ESA) in April.

"The Gaia space telescope catalogue released by ESA will revolutionize astronomy. Dozens of scientific papers are already waiting for publication, and all this is possible thanks to precise and extensive data" - says Dr. Łukasz Wyrzykowski from the Astronomical Observatory of the University of Warsaw.

Gaia is an unmanned spacecraft of the European Space Agency (ESA) designed for precise astrometric measurements. It was launched in December 2013 from the spaceport in French Guiana and began its five-year observation in June 2014.

The main purpose of Gaia is to create a precise, three-dimensional map of the Milky Way. The exact structure of the galactic disk in which the solar system is located will be a reference system for all future observations of the sky. The data provided by Gaia will also allow to study groups of stars at the same distance from the Earth, star clusters and double star systems - also those where the gravitational interaction is very weak due to the distance between objects.

According to the Astronomical Observatory of the University of Warsaw, nearly 500 scientists and software engineers associated in the Gaia DPAC (Gaia Data Processing and Analysis Consortium) are involved in the work on converting telemetric data into scientifically useful information. Members of DPAC come from 20 European countries, including Poland, as well as Algeria, Brazil, Israel and the U.S.

The Polish contribution to the project is primarily the work of Dr. Łukasz Wyrzykowski from the Astronomical Observatory of the University of Warsaw, who specialises in the search for supernovae and lensing black holes, Dr. Arkadiusz Hypki, who creates tools for data analysis, and Dr. Toni Santana-Ross from Adam Mickiewicz University, who conducts research on asteroids.

"The Gaia catalogue is already huge. Within a few years, it will be expanded by further observations and will ultimately occupy about 1 petabyte of data. This means that astroinformatics is becoming an increasingly important field of astronomy" - comments Dr. Arkadiusz Hypki from the Adam Mickiewicz University Astronomical Observatory, quoted in the release.

According to Dr. Wyrzykowski, the state of knowledge of our galaxy before Gaia DR2 can be compared to walking in the forest with one blind eye.

"Although we can see all the trees, we are not able to say which are closer and which are further away - which also involves the risk of bumping into one of them. Gaia DR2 is the missing second eye, which allows us to +see+ distances to the stars. Besides, Gaia uses exactly the same effect as our eyes to measure distances - the parallax phenomenon - only it does that much more accurately" - describes the astronomer from the University of Warsaw.

He explains that in the search for short-term phenomena, knowledge of distances will allow astronomers to distinguish between a flare in a distant galaxy and a small flare in our galaxy. "Precise measurements of distances and movements of stars will make it easier to find signals from lonely black holes acting as gravitational lenses" - says Dr. Łukasz Wyrzykowski.

Dr. Łukasz Wyrzykowski has been involved in the Gaia mission since 2008. In 2008-2015 he worked at the University of Cambridge on a system for detecting temporary phenomena such as supernovae. He is also responsible for organizing the network of terrestrial telescopes that provide complementary observations of the astrophysical phenomena detected by Gaia. This work is being carried out as part of the four-year pan-European program OPTICON that supports the development of European astronomy under the EC`s framework programme Horizon 2020. Scientific research within the Gaia mission is also supported by grants from the Ministry of Science and Higher Education and the National Science Centre.

Dr. Arkadiusz Hypki is an assistant professor at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. He is involved in the study of dynamic and stellar evolution of globular clusters. As part of the Gaia mission, he is involved in the creation of software for the analysis of large data sets. He is the author of the BEANS program that facilitates working on data from the Gaia catalogue in order to be able to compare them with numerical simulations. This work is co-financed by the National Science Centre.

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