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ESA's new Milky Way map shines with 1.7 billion stars

The stars of our Milky Way are giving up their secrets to the European Space Agency's Gaia spacecraft and its stunning new star catalog.

GAIA's all-sky view shows the Milky Way and neighboring galaxies.

ESA/Gaia/DPAC

The European Space Agency just released a new catalog, but it's not full of the latest fashions. It's full of stars. 

The star catalog comes from data collected by the ESA's Gaia satellite and it includes a mind-blowing 1.7 billion stars, most of which are measured with precision as to their positions and motions. It covers stars in our home Milky Way Galaxy and beyond.

Gaia launched in late 2013. The ESA released its first Gaia catalog of 1 billion stars in 2016 with data on the distances and motions of around 2 million of those stars. This new round of data covers Gaia's surveys from mid-2014 to early 2016. 

The current map is even more precise about star positions than the first release. "For some of the brightest stars in the survey, the level of precision equates to Earth-bound observers being able to spot a euro coin lying on the surface of the Moon," says the ESA.

The Gaia mission also examines the brightness, colors and surface temperatures of some stars, and the amount of space dust between us and them. 

Looking beyond stars, the data includes the positions of over 14,000 asteroids. You can check out a fascinating video visualizing the orbits of those asteroids.

"The observations collected by Gaia are redefining the foundations of astronomy," says ESA director of science Günther Hasinger.

While 1.7 billion stars may be hard to wrap your head around, NASA says scientists estimate there are at least 100 billion stars (and maybe as many as 400 billion) in the Milky Way alone.

Astronomers will be busy for years working with Gaia's data, which can give us clues to the formation and evolution of the Milky Way. The ESA plans more releases and expects to issue a final star catalog in the 2020s. 

You can access the publicly available Gaia information through the ESA's Gaia Archive.

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