Milky Way 3D Map Could Reveal New Planets, Massive Black Holes

A majestic spiral galaxy, such as what the Milky Way would look like to an outside observer.

What mysteries does the Milky Way hold? NASA

The Milky Way just became a little less mysterious.

This week, astronomers from the European Space Agency (ESA) released a 3D map of the galaxy. It utilized data from the agency’s $1 billion Gaia mission, which launched in 2013 on a mission to map the stars.

The spacecraft’s newest dataset contains information on about 1.3 billion stars—650 times more celestial bodies than the ESA previously had access to.

Situated on the side of Earth opposite the sun, Gaia has mapped about one percent of the Milky Way so far in an attempt to figure out its history.

Gaia’s telescope can accurately observe stars up to 30,000 light years away. That’s the equivalent of a person on Earth spotting a penny on the moon.

The new dataset also includes information on stars’ colors, which can offer crucial details about surface temperature and age.

It’s not just stars, however—Gaia also observed over 14,000 asteroids orbiting around the solar system.

And now that scientists have the data, the analysis can begin.

According to Scientific American, astrophysicists in the Flatiron District of New York started poring over the data on Wednesday in search of new discoveries.

These researchers were especially interested in the proper motion of stars, or the speed with which they move across the sky.

They’re also focused on Gaia’s motion and position because this data can help map both the Milky Way’s future and its past.

This practice is known as galactic archaeology. Scientists are winding back the clock on the galaxy to trace its 13-billion-year history and figure out how stars are born.

Fittingly, they’re starting with the stars closest to Earth. Researchers can now pinpoint the three-dimensional motion of about seven million stars within a few thousand light years of Earth.

Scientists are also hoping to discover new exoplanets, or planets outside our solar system that orbit stars, with Gaia data. NASA’s Kepler space telescope has already mapped thousands of these structures, so scientists can use the new information to both confirm Kepler’s findings and potentially unearth new planets.

That hasn’t happened yet, but the Flatiron physicists have already discovered a system of brown dwarfs. These celestial objects aren’t planets or stars, but sized somewhere in between—they also emit infrared radiation. Scientists aren’t sure yet how they form, but Gaia’s data could help with that discovery.

Their end goal exists far outside the Milky Way, however. They also want to use Gaia as a roadmap to find more than 500,000 quasars, or supermassive black holes surrounded by gas and dust. Quasars only exist in distant galaxies, but getting information from them can help scientists figure out how the Milky Way was formed.

Gaia’s next data release is planned for 2020, with one more coming sometime in the next decade. Space nerds surely await both of them with baited breath.

Milky Way 3D Map Could Reveal New Planets, Massive Black Holes