Astronomers have unveiled the most precise 3D map yet of the Milky Way, an achievement that promises to shed fresh light on the workings of the galaxy and the mysteries of the broader universe.
The vast electronic atlas was compiled from data gathered by the European Space Agency’s Gaia observatory which has been scanning the heavens since it blasted off in 2013 from Kourou in French Guiana.
The map contains enough detail for astronomers to measure the acceleration of the solar system and calculate the mass of the galaxy. These in turn will provide clues as to how the solar system formed and the rate at which the universe has expanded since the dawn of time.
Nicholas Walton, a member of the ESA Gaia science team at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, compared the effort to filling in the blanks on ancient maps that marked unknown regions with the assertion that “here be dragons”.
“What we’re really doing here is getting a very detailed map of the local universe that’s in three dimensions for stars out to a few hundred light years,” he said.