Top Ten Gaia Facts

Gaia looks nothing like the Herschel Space Observatory shown here.

Gaia looks nothing like the Herschel Space Observatory shown here.

Since yesterday’s successful launch of the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission I have been inundated with requests for more information about this impressive satellite and the science behind it. As a service to the community, and for the edification of the public at large, I therefore thought I’d share my list of top ten Gaia facts via the medium of this blog:

  1. The correct pronunciation of GAIA is as in “gayer”. Please bear this in mind when reading any press articles about the mission.
  2. The GAIA spacecraft will orbit the Sun at the Second Lagrange Point, the only place in the Solar System where the  effects of cuts in the UK science budget can not be felt.
  3. The data processing challenges posed by GAIA are immense; the billions of astrometric measurements resulting from the mission will be analysed using the world’s biggest Excel Spreadsheet.
  4. To provide secure backup storage of the complete GAIA data set, the European Space Agency has commandeered the world’s entire stock of 3½ inch floppy disks.
  5. As well as measuring billions of star positions and velocities, GAIA is expected to discover thousands of new asteroids and the hiding place of Lord Lucan.
  6. GAIA can measure star positions to an accuracy of a few microarcseconds. That’s the angle subtended by a single pubic hair at a distance of 1000km.
  7. The precursor to GAIA was a satellite called Hipparcos, which is not how you spell Hipparchus.
  8. The BBC will be shortly be broadcasting a new 26-part TV series about GAIA. Entitled WOW! Gaia! That’s Soo Amaazing… it will be presented by Britain’s leading expert on astrometry, Professor Brian Cox.
  9. Er…
  10. That’s it.

4 Responses to “Top Ten Gaia Facts”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    Here are some more facts about GAIA, and at least as accurate as the ones above.

    11. GAIA is an acronym for Gerry’s Astonishing Instrument for Astronomy.

    12. Stars measured by GAIA will be named after project team members. When all names are used up, the right to name stars will be sold for 10 euros per star by the European Space Agency’s Official Star Registry. Profits will be used by ESA for future space science missions.

    13. Contruction of the GAIA spacecraft used so many CCD detectors that camera companies had to suspend manufacturing commercial cameras for three weeks until CCD stocks were replenished.

    14. As a sideline, GAIA will monitor nightime traffic congestion on roads on the Earth by measuring the positions of car headlights.

    15. Data from the spacecraft will be typed into the mission database by undergraduate project students.

    16. GAIA had to be launched at night so that sunlight would not obscure its view of stars.

    17. The GAIA spacecraft contains a flask of liquid helium which at the start of the mission will be used to refill the tanks on the Herschel space observatory.

    18. The Hipparcos spacecraft accomplished only part of its mission because it got stuck in the wrong orbit after an engineer forgot to remove a safety device from its rocket engine.

    19. The cost of GAIA would, if spent differently, have provided secure, life-long careers for 1000 European scientists.

    20. The BBC reported on the mission’s launch by having their correspondent stand in the RAS Library with a animated graphic of the Galaxy rotating above his head.

    Sadly, not every one of the above points is false.

    • Monica Grady Says:

      I think No. 12 is a jolly good idea.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      The only problem with “selling” star names is that with 10^9 GAIA stars, you’d need to find 10^9 gullible people.

      Admittedly, 10^10 euros for science projects would be very nice. Personally, I’d suggest a 20-metre optical/IR telescope in Earth orbit.

  2. Mark McCaughrean Says:

    Blimey, chaps. If I reply to this, I obviously run the risk of being told to lighten up and accused of lacking a sense of humour.

    So I won’t.

    Oh, but I did.

    Hmmm. What a funny thing irony is.

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