The first set of data from the European Space Agency satellite was just released.

By Christopher Tkaczyk
October 25, 2016
Courtesy of European Space Agency

The European Space Agency this week unveiled the first set of data from Gaia, its latest mission to collect more information for the ESA Star Mapping project, a 3D galaxy map that helps us better understand the placement of stars within our 13-billion-year-old solar system.

The European Space Agency released the image above, which was taken by the new Gaia mission, on Wednesday.

“This map shows the density of stars observed by Gaia in each portion of the sky. Brighter regions indicate denser concentrations of stars, while darker regions correspond to patches of the sky where fewer stars are observed,” the ESA said in a statement. “The Milky Way is a spiral galaxy, with most of its stars residing in a disc about 100,000 light-years across and about 1,000 light-years thick...Darker regions across the Galactic Plane correspond to dense clouds of interstellar gas and dust that absorb starlight along the line of sight.”

The ESA’s original star mapping project began with the launch of the Hipparcos satellite in 1989, which collected data for 117,955 stars and reported their positions with unprecedented accuracy and gave estimates of their distance from the Earth and motions through the Galaxy.

“It was a huge advance on the best catalogues compiled from ground-based observations,” said the ESA.

With Gaia, the ESA plans to create the most advanced star catalogue ever recorded. The Gaia satellite uses two telescopes, 10 mirrors, and one camera to take a census of the galaxy.

Launched in December 2013 from Europe's spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, Gaia is just 1,000 days into its mission. Gaia’s new data set contains a catalogue of 1.1 billion stars with precise measurements of their position and brightness. The Milky Way is estimated to contain more than 100 billion stars.

Courtesy of European Space Agency

“Gaia is going to be a revolution,” Gerry Gilmore, one of the project’s founders who is at Cambridge University, told the BBC. “It's as if we as astronomers have been bluffing up until now. We're now going to see the truth.”

The ESA’s interactive star mapping website allows users to visualize the data and explore the three-dimensional distribution of almost 60,000 stars from the Hipparcos Catalogue. Stars are represented by their brightness and color, as well as names and parent constellations for the brightest stars. You can view the ESA Star Mapper on the agency's website.

Christopher Tkaczyk is the Senior News Editor at Travel + Leisure. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @ctkaczyk.