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Gaia mission finds ‘stellar earthquakes’ on new map of Milky Way

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Phenomena observed in thousands of stars are associated with movements on the surface of each star. (Photo: ESA/Gaia/DPAC)

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Gaia mission has released the third batch of data from a project that aims to produce the most comprehensive map of the Milky Way. Among the highlights discovered is the detection of “earthquakes” in thousands of stars in our galaxy.

These phenomena are marked by small movements on the surface of each star and are able to change the shape of the stars. “Starquakes teach us a lot about stars, especially their inner workings. Gaia opens a goldmine for massive star ‘asteroseismology’, said Connie Earths, a member of the ESA mission, in a statement.

Although the space enterprise was not designed to detect these “earthquakes,” it found vibrations even in stars that had rarely been seen before. The most recent theory is that these stars shouldn’t have any jolts, but detection has shown just the opposite.

In the largest 3D motion map of the Milky Way, the Gaia mission has captured the details of nearly 2 billion stars. Among them are information about the chemical composition, temperature, color, mass, age, and even the speed at which stars approach or move away from the Earth (radial velocity).

The mission’s astronomers also discovered the largest catalog of binary stars ever created, as well as special stellar subsets, such as those whose brightness changes over time. It also managed to obtain data on thousands of solar system objects, such as asteroids, moons and millions of galaxies and quasars outside the Milky Way.

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Some stars discovered by Gaia contain more heavy metals than others. Although some of them are composed of primordial material, there are stars such as the Sun that are composed of matter enriched from previous stellar generations.

“Our galaxy is a beautiful melting pot of stars,” compares Alejandra Rechio-Blanco of the Côte d’Azur Observatory in France. For a specialist who collaborated with the Gaia team, this diversity is extremely important, because it tells us the history of the Milky Way.

Much of the information from the Gaia space observatory comes from recently published data from spectroscopy, a technique in which starlight is broken down into its component colors, much like a rainbow.

“By scouring the entire sky with billions of stars over and over again, Gaia is forced to make discoveries that other, more specialized missions would miss,” says Timo Prusti, Gaia Project Scientist at ESA. “That’s one of its strengths, and we can’t wait for the astronomical community to delve into our new data to learn more about our galaxy and its environs than we ever imagined.”