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Galactic archaeologists are mapping the galaxy's past

1.7 billion stars in the Milky Way and neighboring galaxies, taken by the European Space Agency's Gaia spacecraft from July 2014 to May 2016. Photo: ESA/Gaia/DPAC

With the richest vein of crystal-clear images of the galaxy to date, researchers are mapping the past orbits of stars to get closer to understanding the Milky Way's history.

What's going on: The practitioners of this science call it "galactic archaeology," which has gotten a huge boost with a burst of images from Gaia, an observatory launched into orbit by the European Space Agency in 2013 (see image above.)

Why it matters: "Astronomers, who had previously catalogued just 2.5 million of the brightest stars in the galaxy, are hailing a new era of precision astronomy," reports Quanta magazine's Natalie Wolchover.

  • The observatory has tracked 1.7 billion stars with often astonishing precision. It provided the position of 14,000 asteroids and a half million quasars, galaxies that are powered by "supermassive black holes at their core."
  • "For some of the brightest stars in the survey, the level of precision equates to Earth-bound observers being able to spot a Euro coin lying on the surface of the Moon," the European Space Agency said in a news release.
  • The result "places us in a unique position to ... open the most exciting Galactic archaeology playground to date," researchers from the University of Strasbourg said in a paper on the Gaia data.

What's next: Walchover quotes Khyati Malhan, lead author of the paper: “The idea is to trace the streams backward in time along their orbits in order to contemplate the galaxy’s past and its formation history.”

Go deeper: 360-degree visualizations from Gaia

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