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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

Go deeper

Senate confirms retired Gen. Lloyd Austin as defense secretary

Photo: Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images

The Senate voted 93-2 on Friday to confirm retired Gen. Lloyd Austin as secretary of defense. Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) were the sole "no" votes.

Why it matters: Austin is the first Black American to lead the Pentagon and President Biden's second Cabinet nominee to be confirmed.

House will transmit article of impeachment to Senate on Monday, Schumer says

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced that the House will deliver the article of impeachment against former President Trump for "incitement of insurrection" on Monday.

Why it matters: The Senate is required to begin the impeachment trial at 1pm the day after the article is transmitted.

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Private equity bets on delayed tax reform in Biden administration

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

In normal times, private equity would be nervous about Democratic Party control of both the White House and Congress. But in pandemic-consumed 2021, the industry seems sanguine.

Driving the news: Industry executives and lobbyists paid very close attention to Treasury Secretary nominee Janet Yellen's confirmation hearings this week, and came away convinced that tax reform isn't on the near-term agenda.