New map of Milky Way 'most detailed billion-star 3D atlas ever assembled'

Credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC

UK astronomers have created the most detailed 3D map of the Milky Way ever created.

The cosmic atlas - made up of nearly two billion stars - could help illuminate researchers as to how the galaxy came into existence, and answer crucial questions about its future.

The European Space Agency’s Gaia space observatory has been scanning the Milky Way since its launch in 2013, with the data helping to build the new map.

Gaia's two telescopes sit a whopping 930,000 miles (1.5 million km) from Earth, measuring the positions and brightness of billions of stars and detailing their magnitudes and colours.

An artist’s impression of Gaia mapping the stars of the Milky Way Credit: ESA

Dr Caroline Harper, head of space science at the UK Space Agency, which provided the funding for the research, said: "Thanks to Gaia's telescopes we have in our possession today the most detailed billion-star 3D atlas ever assembled."

"Gaia has been staring at the heavens for the past seven years, mapping the positions and velocities of stars."

Cambridge University's Dr Floor van Leeuwen, who led the research, explained just how the satellites operated: "Gaia is measuring the distances of hundreds of millions of objects that are many thousands of light years away, at an accuracy equivalent to measuring the thickness of hair at a distance of more than 2,000 kilometres."

"These data are one of the backbones of astrophysics," he added.

The Gaia data will also allow astronomers to measure the mass of the Milky Way by analysing the “gentle” acceleration of the solar system as it orbits around the galaxy.

It is thought that over a year the Sun accelerates towards the centre of the galaxy by 7mm per second, while orbiting at a speed of about 124 miles (200 km) a second.

The Large Magellanic Cloud and the Small Magellanic Cloud Credit: left

Astronomers will also be able to deconstruct the two largest companion galaxies to the Milky Way – the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds – using the data collected by the Gaia satellite.

The two galaxies are connected by a bridge of stars thought to be 75,000 light years long.

The new data will also include “exceptionally accurate” measurements of the 300,000 stars that are relatively close to the Sun, within a distance of 326 light years.

The researchers aim to use the information to learn more about the fate of the Milky Way by predicting how the galaxy will change in the next 1.6 million years.