The Most Powerful Space Camera Yet

Could help save Earth from deadly asteroids

Feb 26, 2014
Outside Magazine

Scientists will soon learn lots more about the stars in the sky, thanks to a new telescope.    Getty Images/iStockphoto

Galileo would be proud. In December, the European Space Agency launched a massive telescope named Gaia—and now Gaia is ready to start taking shots.

Gaia's five-year mission is to map the stars in the Milky Way, and scientists hope the device will catalog as many as a billion stars during its tenure, reports. But don't be fooled—Gaia is more than a fancy camera despite its 940 million pixels. The telescope observes bright objects in the night sky and can determine their three-dimensional shapes and velocities. Still not impressed? Gaia also measures the temperature, mass, and chemical composition of the objects it surveys.

Thanks to increased dimness sensitivity, Gaia can measure 500 times the number of stars as its relatively wimpy predecessor, Hipparcos. And don't even think about how much more powerful the telescope is compared to your eyes—Gaia can discern objects 400,000 times dimmer than the ones humans can. That's roughly equivalent to accurately measuring the width of a human hair from 310 miles away.

Gaia won't focus exclusively on stars millions of miles away. Because of the telescope's position in relation to the sun, it'll be able to spot asteroids that might collide with Earth that are tough to spot from the planet's surface.

The telescope also has data efficiency that'll make photographers and computer geeks drip with envy. After the five-year mission, Gaia will send back only 100 terabytes of data, not more than a couple hundred computer hard drives. Even Galileo would swoon—but then again, he didn't have to worry about disk space.