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Precision ground tracking critical to Gaia mapping

15 May 2019, 12:30 UTC
Precision ground tracking critical to Gaia mapping
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A composite image from ESO’s VLT Survey Telescope showing the position of the European Space Agency’s Gaia spacecraft. Such precise tracking improves the accuracy of Gaia’s sky maps. Image: ESO
Gaia, operated by the European Space Agency (ESA), surveys the sky from orbit to create the largest, most precise three-dimensional map of our galaxy. One year ago, the Gaia mission produced its much-awaited second data release, which included high-precision measurements — positions, distance and proper motions — of more than one billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. This catalogue has enabled transformational studies in many fields of astronomy, addressing the structure, origin and evolution the Milky Way and generating more than 1700 scientific publications since its launch in 2013.
In order to reach the accuracy necessary for Gaia’s sky maps, it is crucial to pinpoint the position of the spacecraft from Earth. Therefore, while Gaia scans the sky, gathering data for its stellar census, astronomers regularly monitor its position using a global network of optical telescopes, including the VST at ESO’s Paranal Observatory. The VST is currently the largest survey telescope observing the sky in visible light, and records Gaia’s position in the sky every second night throughout the ...

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