After a little more than a year on the job of creating an accurate 3D map of the Milky Way, space surveyor Gaia has taken more than 150 billion images, including star pictures and spectra. Despite some performance challenges posed by basic angle issues and stray light, Gaia has observed light variations of stars beyond the Milky Way, 160,000 light years away. If Gaia keeps working as well as it is, four more years could well be added to the mission, which would significantly improve the accuracy of the data.
Designed and built by Airbus Defence and Space for the European Space Agency (ESA), Gaia was launched on 19 December 2013. It’s mission: to conduct a census of a billion stars and other astronomical phenomena in our galaxy to help scientists solve the mystery of stellar evolution and star formation and provide new insights into the origin and formation history of the Milky Way.
To ensure that Gaia would be able to face the rigours of space travel, Airbus Defence and Space created the largest instrument ever fully built in silicon carbide for this mission. This lightweight, rigid ceramic material can withstand just about anything. The company’s engineers have extensive experience with this material, gained from creating the silicon carbide telescopes on the Herschel telescope and the Aladin instrument for the ESA wind satellite Aeolus, scheduled to launch in 2016, as well as on three Earth observation satellites. To protect both spacecraft and payload instruments from the extreme variations in temperature, the scientists and engineers also created Gaia’s sunshield, which allows thermal isolation performance at extreme temperatures between -170°C and +70°C.