You Are Here: How Astronomical Surveys Are Pinpointing Our Place in the Cosmos
Illustration: A theoretical image rendering of what the milky way might look like (our technologies haven’t come close to traveling far out enough to snap gpoys of our home galaxy. via outerspaceuniverse)
Upcoming telescope projects on Earth and in space will map out billions of stars and galaxies all around us
Like surveyors charting out a parcel of land by measuring angles, distances and elevations, astronomers have long mapped the positions of celestial objects in the sky.
Those celestial maps are about to see some major revisions. New and upcoming campaigns using ground-based telescopes or spacecraft promise to fill in many new details in astronomers’ maps of the sky. Together these projects will catalogue detailed positional information on several billion stars and galaxies near and far.
One of the most dramatic upgrades to celestial cartography should come from the European Space Agency’s Gaia spacecraft, which is scheduled to launch next year. After taking up a position in deep space, well beyond the orbit of the moon, Gaia will map the positions and distances of roughly one billion stars. The mission is the successor to the Hipparcos satellite, which launched in 1989 and whose catalogue still finds wide use. But that satellite charted just 120,000 stars or so, and only a slight minority were pinpointed with top-level precision.
By mapping out so many stars, astronomers hope to improve their understanding of our home galaxy’s layout. “The main science goal is to address the issues of our Milky Way—the structure and the dynamics,” Prusti says. Buried as we are within the Milky Way, humankind has never had a glimpse of the galaxy in its entirety. The astronomer’s predicament is a bit like that of an artist who must sketch the Manhattan skyline from midtown, instead of from a clear vantage point across the Hudson River. Just as the artist can inspect Manhattan’s skyscrapers one by one to reconstruct the skyline in her sketch, the astronomer can fill in a map of the galaxy one star at a time.