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Starquakes! Gaia spacecraft sees strange stars in most detailed Milky Way survey yet

Gaia sees starquakes

One of the startling findings from Gaia’s version 3 data is that Gaia is able to detect starquakes – tiny movements on a star’s surface – that change the shape of stars, for which the he observatory was not originally designed. Credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Gaia is a European Space Agency (ESA) mission to create an accurate three-dimensional map of over a billion stars across our[{” attribute=””>Milky Way galaxy and beyond. Although it launched all the way back in 2013, it is still working to accurately map the the motions, luminosity, temperature and composition of the stars in our galaxy.

Along the way it has made numerous discoveries, such as detecting a shake in the Milky Way, the observation of almost 500 explosions in galaxy cores, crystallization in white dwarfs, and discovering a billion-year-old river of stars. It also revealed the total weight of the Milky Way, a direct measurement of the galactic bar in the Milky Way, mysterious fossil spiral arms in the Milky Way, and a new member of the Milky Way family.

Today marks the data of the third data release from Gaia. The first data release was on September 14, 2016, followed by the second data release on April 25, 2018. On December 3, 2020, they did an early third data release with detailed data on more than 1.8 billion stars. All this data is helping to reveal the origin, structure, and evolutionary history of our galaxy.

Gaia: Exploring the Multi-Dimensional Milky Way

This image shows four sky maps made with the new ESA Gaia data released on June 13, 2022. Credit: © ESA/Gaia/DPAC; CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Today (June 13, 2022), ESA’s Gaia mission releases its new treasure trove of data about our home galaxy. Astronomers describe strange ‘starquakes’, stellar

Gaia is ESA’s mission to create the most accurate and complete multi-dimensional map of the Milky Way. This allows astronomers to reconstruct our home galaxy’s structure and past evolution over billions of years, and to better understand the lifecycle of stars and our place in the Universe.

What’s new in version 3 data?

Gaia Data Version 3 contains new and improved detail for nearly two billion stars in our galaxy. The catalog includes new information, including chemical compositions, stellar temperatures, colors, masses, ages, and how fast stars are approaching or moving away from us (radial velocity). Much of this information has been revealed by recently published data from spectroscopy, a technique in which starlight is split into its constituent colors (like a rainbow). The data also includes special subsets of stars, such as those that change brightness over time.

Also new to this dataset are the largest catalog of binary stars to date, thousands of solar system objects such as asteroids and moons of planets, and millions of galaxies and quasars outside the Milky Way.


One of the most startling findings from the new data is that Gaia is able to detect starquakes – tiny movements on a star’s surface – that change the shape of stars, something the observatory does not was not originally designed.

Previously, Gaia had found radial oscillations that cause stars to periodically swell and shrink, while retaining their spherical shape. But Gaia has also spotted other vibrations that are more like large-scale tsunamis. These non-radial oscillations change the overall shape of a star and are therefore more difficult to detect.

Gaia has found powerful non-radial starquakes in thousands of stars. Gaia has also revealed such vibrations in stars that have rarely been seen before. These stars should not have quakes according to the current theory, whereas Gaia detected them on their surface.

“Starquakes teaches us a lot about stars, including their inner workings. Gaia opens up a gold mine for the ‘asteroseismology’ of massive stars,” says Conny Aerts from KU Leuven in Belgium, a member of the Gaia collaboration.

The DNA of stars

The composition of stars can tell us about their birthplace and subsequent journey, and thus about the history of the Milky Way. With today’s data release, Gaia reveals the largest chemical map of the galaxy coupled with 3D motions, from our solar neighborhood to smaller galaxies surrounding ours.

Some stars contain more “heavy metals” than others. During the[{” attribute=””>Big Bang, only light elements were formed (hydrogen and helium). All other heavier elements – called metals by astronomers – are built inside stars. When stars die, they release these metals into the gas and dust between the stars called the interstellar medium, out of which new stars form. Active star formation and death will lead to an environment that is richer in metals. Therefore, a star’s chemical composition is a bit like its DNA, giving us crucial information about its origin.

You Are Here Milky Way

This image shows an artistic impression of the Milky Way, and on top of that an overlay showing the location and densities of a young star sample from Gaia’s data release 3 (in yellow-green). The “you are here” sign points towards the Sun. Credit: © ESA/Gaia/DPAC; CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

With Gaia, we see that some stars in our galaxy are made of primordial material, while others like our Sun are made of matter enriched by previous generations of stars. Stars that are closer to the center and plane of our galaxy are richer in metals than stars at larger distances. Gaia also identified stars that originally came from different galaxies than our own, based on their chemical composition.

“Our galaxy is a beautiful melting pot of stars,” says Alejandra Recio-Blanco of the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur in France, who is a member of the Gaia collaboration.

“This diversity is extremely important, because it tells us the story of our galaxy’s formation. It reveals the processes of migration within our galaxy and accretion from external galaxies. It also clearly shows that our Sun, and we, all belong to an ever-changing system, formed thanks to the assembly of stars and gas of different origins.”

Asteroids in Gaia Data Release 3

This image shows the orbits of the more than 150,000 asteroids in Gaia’s data release 3, from the inner parts of the Solar System to the Trojan asteroids at the distance of Jupiter, with different color codes. The yellow circle at the center represents the Sun. Blue represents the inner part of the Solar System, where the Near Earth Asteroids, Mars crossers, and terrestrial planets are. The Main Belt, between Mars and Jupiter, is green. Jupiter trojans are red. Credit: © ESA/Gaia/DPAC; CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO, Acknowledgements: P. Tanga (Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur)

Binary stars, asteroids, quasars, and more

Other papers that are published today reflect the breadth and depth of Gaia’s discovery potential. A new binary star catalog presents the mass and evolution of more than 800 thousand binary systems, while a new asteroid survey comprising 156 thousand rocky bodies is digging deeper into the origin of our Solar System. Gaia is also revealing information about 10 million variable stars, mysterious macro-molecules between stars, as well as quasars and galaxies beyond our own cosmic neighborhood.

Asteroids June 2022 With Gaia

The position of each asteroid at 12:00 CEST on June 13, 2022, is plotted. Each asteroid is a segment representing its motion over 10 days. Inner bodies move faster around the Sun (yellow circle at the center). Blue represents the inner part of the Solar System, where the Near Earth Asteroids, Mars crossers, and terrestrial planets are. The Main Belt, between Mars and Jupiter, is green. The two orange ‘clouds’ correspond to the Trojan asteroids of Jupiter. Credit: © ESA/Gaia/DPAC; CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO, Acknowledgements: P. Tanga (Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur)

“Unlike other missions that target specific objects, Gaia is a survey mission. This means that while surveying the entire sky with billions of stars multiple times, Gaia is bound to make discoveries that other more dedicated missions would miss. This is one of its strengths, and we can’t wait for the astronomy community to dive into our new data to find out even more about our galaxy and its surroundings than we could’ve imagined,” says Timo Prusti, Project Scientist for Gaia at ESA.

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