We now have a 3D map of the Milky Way to help fuel new astronomical breakthroughs

The European Space Agency (ESA) has published the first fully 3D map of the Milky Way, allowing researchers to see space unlike ever before.

Containing the positions of nearly 1.7 billion stars – with the distance, colours, velocities and directions of motions recorded for around 1.3 billion of them – we now have an unprecedented view of a slice of our own galaxy. The map, which is the result of ESA’s Gaia mission, covers a volume 1,000 times larger than previous surveys.

You can access the database from ESA’s archive but we don’t recommend downloading all 551GB of data unless you’re really curious to see it all. The team’s decision to open up the data to everyone as soon as possible, instead of reserve it for its own purposes, is a move that should hopefully lead to a far better understanding of the history of the Milky Way.

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For instance, by having a three-dimensional map of space, we suddenly know the actual positions and distances of stars in space. Some of the stars recorded are used as yardsticks to help estimate distances between solar systems and even other galaxies. With the 3D map, researchers will now be able to make far more accurate measurements to just how far away another system is from our own.

The data used to create ESA’s star map comes from its two-tonne, €1 billion Gaia mission that launched in late 2013. It began collecting data from July 2014 and, so, many teams around the world have had plenty of time to prepare for the inevitable release of information.

Now that the data is available, it’s likely we’ll start to see models of how the Galaxy formed, see measurements of dark matter distribution or even theories around how stars evolve as they burn through their fuel.

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This isn’t the first release of data from the Gaia mission, that came in 2016, but it is certainly the most complete data set yet. More releases are planned, with the next coming in 2020, and they will contain more and more information with granular data points allowing researchers to conduct entirely new studies into our own Galaxy.

Gaia is also still collecting data, meaning more information will keep coming for years. The ESA claims that Gaia has enough fuel on board to keep it operating until 2024, so expect an update to this piece with more cool data points for many years to come.

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