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ESA’s Gaia Satellite Launched on Five-year Galaxy-mapping Mission

Launch of Gaia satellite on Soyuz rocket, showing the moment the aerodynamic fairing is jettisoned. Credit: ESA artist's concept by D. Ducros

PARIS — Europe’s Gaia star-mapping satellite was successfully launched Dec. 19 aboard a Europeanized Russian Soyuz rocket from Europe’s South American spaceport in a mission that, after five years of operations, should result in a 3-D map of 1 billion stars in the Milky Way.

European Space Agency (ESA) project managers said the 2,030-kilogram satellite successfully separated from the Soyuz rocket’s Fregat upper stage and deployed its all-important sun shield.

The next step will be the first of two firings of Gaia’s on-board thrusters to propel it in the direction of the L2 Lagrangian point around the sun at a distance of 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. The second firing is scheduled for early January.

Gaia will then begin four months of testing of its instruments as it travels to its operating point and the April start of a five-year operational mission that will see it taking, on average, 70 images of the same star as it builds the billion-star catalog.

Gaia’s planned October launch had been moved to mid-December to allow time to repair a suspected defect in a digital timing device — the same device that forced a delay, to early 2014, in the launch of four O3b Networks Ka-band broadband communications satellites.

Built by Astrium Satellites, which changed its name to Airbus Defense and Space on Jan. 1, Gaia required seven years to develop. Collecting Gaia’s voluminous harvest — estimated at 40 gigabytes per day — and developing a coherent catalog will be the job of the multinational Data Processing and Analysis Consortium (DPAC) and its six processing centers, all located in Europe.

Gaia cost around 950 million euros, or $1.3 billion at current exchange rates, a figure that includes its manufacture, launch and operations. DPAC has spent an additional 200 million euros preparing for the torrent of Gaia data, with more spending to start once the satellite is at L2 and starts sending data.

Follow Peter on Twitter at @pbdes

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