European experts gather to prepare for Gaia
27 June 2001About 100 European scientists are gathering in ESTEC over the nexttwo days to consider plans for the scientific organisation of Gaia - ESA's ambitious mission to help unravel the origin and evolution of our Galaxy. Experts in general relativity, extra-solar planets, and a whole host of other relevant disciplines are coming together to pool their knowledge about how Gaia can best be organised.
Gaia was accepted as one of the next cornerstones missions of the ESA science programme in October 2000. It is an ambitious experiment to map the positions of about one billion stars in our Galaxy, providing an enormous advance in the knowledge of our Galaxy's structure and composition, and its origin and evolution.
ESA established its world leadership in this field of space science through the Hipparcos star mapping satellite, operated between 1989-1993; Gaia will improve on the Hipparcos results by a colossal three orders of magnitude (factor of 1000) improvement in accuracy, and four orders of magnitude (factor of 10000) in the total number of stars observed.
Through its five-year sky scanning, Gaia will compile an unprecedented census of our Solar System, our Galaxy, and beyond: it will detect new Solar System objects including near-Earth asteroids, tens of thousands of extra-solar planets, hundreds of millions of variable and binary stars, and hundreds of thousands of supernovae. The ESTEC meeting is the first step towards finalising the satellite design, designing the complex data analysis system, and preparing the diverse package of computer programmes necessary to analyse the mass of data that the Gaia satellite will send to Earth after its launch about a decade from now. Experts from a diverse range of disciplines are contributing to these preparations for Gaia.
Gaia project scientist Michael Perryman has no doubt that ESA and the European scientific community can deliver what the recently completed Concept and Technology Study has claimed, and sees a sound organisation of the scientific effort as an essential element of the mission's success. "There is a lot of excitement about Gaia's expected scientific impact, our scientific collaborators are pushing hard for ESA to get moving with this programme, and everyone is just hoping that the Science Programme Committee's directive of a launch
The impressive line-up of European astronomers participating in this week's ESTEC meeting certainly provides confirmation of the interest and excitement that the Gaia mission is generating within the European scientific community.