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Gigapixel Camera to Capture the Stars
Jamais Cascio, 10 Sep 04

Sometime after 2010, the European Space Agency will be launching the Gaia mission, which is to create the most comprehensive map yet of our galaxy and beyond. Mission details include a stellar census as well as a search for a wide range of objects:

Gaia will pinpoint exotic objects in colossal and almost unimaginable numbers: many thousands of extra-solar planets will be discovered, and their detailed orbits and masses determined; brown dwarfs and white dwarfs will be identified in their tens of thousands; some 50 000 supernovae will be detected and details passed to ground-based observers for follow-up observations; Solar System studies will receive a massive impetus through the detection of many tens of thousands of new minor planets, and even new trans-Neptunian objects, including Plutinos, may be discovered. Amongst other results relevant to fundamental physics, Gaia will follow the bending of star light by the Sun, over the entire celestial sphere, and therefore directly observe the structure of space-time.

Although the mission was approved a few years ago, the ESA just released information on its primary cargo. Gaia will be outfitted with a gigapixel camera: a mosaic of 170 9-megapixel CCDs, linked together to form what will be the most sensitive and detailed camera ever put outside the atmosphere. Coupled with a 1.4 meter telescope, it will be map objects down to "V=20" magnitude. Gaia will be stationed 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, at the "L2" point along Earth's orbit, one of the locations where the gravitational pull of the Earth and the Sun allow for a stable position, and well away from the reflected light of the Earth and Moon.

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