Gaia Spacecraft Finds Previously Hidden Star Cluster (Video)

Sometimes, even the most dazzling celestial wonder might be hiding right before your eyes. Case in point: Gaia 1, a brilliant star cluster scientists have found by mining observations from the European Space Agency's Gaia space observatory.

Astronomers use a surprisingly simple method to find clusters of stars: measure a star's distance and position, count its neighbors, repeat. The method of cataloguing stars was pioneered in the 1700s and 1800s by sibling astronomers William and Caroline Herschel, who used it to estimate the shape of our galaxy, the video said. This is similar to the way cartographers used to create maps from surveying measurements.

The massive star cluster Gaia 1, discovered by scientists who were mining data from the European Space Agency's Gaia mission, is visible in the center of this image from NASA's WISE mission, just left of the brilliant star Sirius. (Image credit: Sergey Koposov; NASA/JPL; D. Lang, 2014; A.M. Meisner et al. 2017)


Data from Gaia has allowed scientists to extend this 18th-century technique to look for clusters that they have previously been unable to detect. The spacecraft will analyze and monitor billions of stars in the Milky Way over its five-year mission. [Photos: Gaia Spacecraft's Milky Way Maps]

In May 2017, astronomers announced that Gaia's sensitive instruments and software had identified a star cluster 30 light-years wide, which they subsequently named Gaia 1. Although Gaia 1 is large and bright, it's obscured by Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, which is less than half a degree away.

The first full-sky map from the European Space Agency's Gaia mission is shown here. The annotated view is made up of observations collected by Gaia between July 2014 and September 2015. (Image credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC)

"Countless generations of astronomers must have stared right at Gaia 1, blissfully unaware of its existence," the scientists wrote in the study that announced its discovery.

Astronomers identified Gaia 1 in the first round of data released from the Gaia mission. As the spacecraft gathers more information, it promises to provide an even better account of our place in the universe.

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Harrison Tasoff
Former Contributing Writer

Harrison Tasoff is a science journalist originally from Los Angeles. He graduated from NYU’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program after earning his B.A. in mathematics at Swarthmore College. Harrison covers an array of subjects, but often finds himself drawn to physics, ecology, and earth science stories. In his spare time, he enjoys tidepooling, mineral collecting, and tending native plants.