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Billion-pixel Gaia camera to map galaxy in 3D

The European Space Agency successfully put its Gaia satellite into orbit, with the hopes of unrolling a stunning map of the Milky Way in 3D.

Gaia liftoff
The Gaia stargazer launched from French Guiana en route to an orbit 932,000 miles from Earth.

The Milky Way is about to be seen in a whole new way.

The European Space Agency has successfully launched its Gaia satellite into orbit, bringing a 1 billion-pixel camera detector to map our galaxy in 3D.

The stargazer lifted off on Thursday aboard a Soyuz-Fregat rocket from a launch pad at Sinnamary in French Guiana. Its mission is to map the precise location of over a billion stars.

Its instruments are expected to help discover planets, asteroids, and supernovas, as well as reveal a better understanding of the origin and structure of the Milky Way.

With its sunshield of solar panels successfully deployed, the spacecraft is on its way to L2, a point in space some 932,000 miles from Earth where it will begin its five-year stellar census of stars in the galaxy and the Local Group of galaxies.

It's carrying one of the largest digital cameras in the solar system, a detector array of 106 charge-coupled devices that works in conjunction with two onboard telescopes.

Gaia's sunshield will protect its instruments from sunlight and heat while capturing solar energy. ESA

During Gaia's mission, it will map each star over 70 times and accumulate 1 petabyte of data, or about 200,000 DVDs worth of information. The Gaia Data Processing and Analysis Consortium, made up of more than 400 people at science centers in Europe, will analyze the observations.

"Gaia represents a dream of astronomers throughout history, right back to the pioneering observations of the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus, who cataloged the relative positions of around a thousand stars with only naked-eye observations and simple geometry," Alvaro Giménez, ESA director of science and robotic exploration, said in a release.

"Over 2,000 years later, Gaia will not only produce an unrivaled stellar census, but along the way has the potential to uncover new asteroids, planets and dying stars," he said.

Check out the videos below showing Gaia's spectacular launch and an animation of its deployment into orbit.