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ESA's Gaia camera packs one billion pixels, maps entire Milky Way in 3D

The European Space Agency has just flopped out a 1 billion pixel (that's, one thousand megapixels) imaging device known as GAIA, which will map our galaxy in 3D.

How big is the image sensor on your camera? Five megapixels? Eight? 16? It hardly matters, because the European Space Agency is about to make you feel very inadequate. It's just flopped out a '1 billion pixel' (that's, one thousand megapixels) imaging device known as Gaia, which will map the Milky Way galaxy in 3D.

One billion pixels is actually a tiny bit of an understatement. Gaia's surface combines 106 credit card-sized charged coupled devices (CCDs), each the thickness of a human hair. The CCDs, which are effectively 'miniature' cameras in their own right, feature 4,500 pixels in the 'along scan' direction and 1,966 pixels for 'across scan', providing an overall total of around 8,847,000 pixels per CCD. Multiply that by 160 and you have a giant CCD consisting of 1 billion, 415 million, 520 thousand pixels. Zoinks!

This, unsurprisingly, provides ever-so-slightly more seeing power than the milk bottle glasses you used to rock in primary school. The European Space Agency reckons the resolution is so high, that even if Gaia were mounted on the Earth's surface "it could measure the thumbnails of a person on the moon". If you were to stand in front of it, it could probably see in to your very soul. Try that with your Nokia N8.

Thankfully, the European Space Agency hasn't created Gaia simply to ensure astronauts' manicures are up to scratch (see what we did there?). Its rather ambitious objective is to create the largest and most precise three-dimensional chart of our galaxy ever seen, which it'll do by mapping one thousand million stars, capturing each as a pinpoint of light up to 70 times over a five-year period.

The European Space Agency plans to launch Gaia some time in 2013 on the Soyuz-Fregat launch vehicle.