Gaia - a gift to the next generation of astronomers
14 May 2001Dozens of young scientists from all over Europe have gathered this week at Les Houches in Savoie, France, for intensive briefings on ESA's next star-mapping satellite, Gaia. As the successor to the very successful Hipparcos space astrometry project, Gaia was approved lastyear as an ESA Cornerstone mission to be launched around 2012. Engaging the interest and participation of the next generation of astronomers will be vital for the project's success.
The Hipparcos satellite (1989-93) revolutionized astrometry, the science of star measurement, by fixing the positions, brightnesses, colours and variations of millions of stars in our vicinity far more accurately than ever before. Astrometry was previously a difficult, backwater subject of interest to only a few specialists. Hipparcos changed all that, with results that are still impacting on every branch of astronomy, from comets to cosmology.
Gaia will be 100 times better than Hipparcos. By charting a billion stars, to much greater distances than Hipparcos, it will give an unprecedented picture of the positions and motions of stars across most of the Milky Way Galaxy. Besides transforming the science of stars and galaxies, Gaia will be a top discoverer of asteroids and alien planets.
"Gaia will deliver its first results more than ten years from now," notes Michael Perryman, Gaia's project scientist. "Key individuals have already devoted half their working lives to conceiving and accomplishing Hipparcos, and to inventing Gaia. Who'll pick up the baton when they retire? That's the question."