Pinpointing Gaia to map the Milky Way
ESO’s VST helps determine the spacecraft’s orbit to enable the most accurate map ever of more than a billion stars
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 year.
“Gaia observations require a special observing procedure,” explained Monika Petr-Gotzens, who has coordinated the execution of ESO’s observations of Gaia since 2013. “The spacecraft is what we call a ‘moving target’, as it is moving quickly relative to background stars — tracking Gaia is quite the challenge!”
“The VST is the perfect tool for picking out the motion of Gaia,” elaborated Ferdinando Patat, head of the ESO’s Observing Programmes Office. “Using one of ESO’s first-rate ground-based facilities to bolster cutting-edge space observations is a fine example of scientific cooperation.”
“This is an exciting ground-space collaboration, using one of ESO’s world-class telescopes to anchor the trailblazing observations of ESA’s billion star surveyor,” commented Timo Prusti, Gaia project scientist at ESA.
The VST observations are used by ESA’s flight dynamics experts to track Gaia and refine the knowledge of the spacecraft’s orbit. Painstaking calibration is required to transform the observations, in which Gaia is just a speck of light among the bright stars, into meaningful orbital information. Data from Gaia’s second release was used to identify each of the stars in the field of view, and allowed the position of the spacecraft to be calculated with astonishing precision — up to 20 milliarcseconds.
“This is a challenging process: we are using Gaia’s measurements of the stars to calibrate the position of the Gaia spacecraft and ultimately improve its measurements of the stars,” explains Timo Prusti.
“After careful and lengthy data processing, we have now achieved the accuracy required for the ground-based observations of Gaia to be implemented as part of the orbit determination,” says Martin Altmann, lead of the Ground Based Optical Tracking (GBOT) campaign at the Centre for Astronomy of Heidelberg University, Germany.
The GBOT information will be used to improve our knowledge of Gaia’s orbit not only in observations to come, but also for all the data that have been gathered from Earth in the previous years, leading to improvements in the data products that will be included in future releases.
 This collaboration between ESO and ESA is just one of several cooperative projects which have benefitted from the expertise of both organisations in progressing astronomy and astrophysics. On 20 August 2015, the ESA and ESO Directors General signed a cooperation agreement to facilitate synergy through projects such as these.
In order to foster exchanges between astrophysics-related spaceborne missions and ground-based facilities, as well as between their respective communities, ESA and ESO are joining forces to organise a series of international astronomy meetings. The first ESA-ESO joint workshop will take place in November 2019 at ESO and a call for proposals for the second workshop, to take place in 2020 at ESA, is currently open.
ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It has 16 Member States: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile and with Australia as a Strategic Partner. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope and its world-leading Very Large Telescope Interferometer as well as two survey telescopes, VISTA working in the infrared and the visible-light VLT Survey Telescope. Also at Paranal ESO will host and operate the Cherenkov Telescope Array South, the world’s largest and most sensitive gamma-ray observatory. ESO is also a major partner in two facilities on Chajnantor, APEX and ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre Extremely Large Telescope, the ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is Europe’s gateway to space. Its mission is to shape the development of Europe’s space capability and ensure that investment in space continues to deliver benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world.
ESA is an international organisation with 22 Member States. By coordinating the financial and intellectual resources of its members, it can undertake programmes and activities far beyond the scope of any single European country.
ESA’s Gaia satellite was launched in 2013 to create the most precise three-dimensional map of more than one billion stars in the Milky Way. The mission has released two lots of data thus far: Gaia Data Release 1 in 2016 and Gaia Data Release 2 in 2018. More releases will follow in the coming years.
* ESOblog: How ESO collaborates with ESA – https:/
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