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EADS Astrium To Build Gaia Satellite

The Gaia Spacecraft in the middle of it's sunshield deployment sequence. Image credit: ESA
by Staff Writers
Toulouse, France (SPX) May 12, 2006
ESA has awarded EADS Astrium the contract to develop and build its Gaia satellite. Due to be launched in 2011, its mission is to construct the largest and most precise map ever of the Milky Way.

The 317 million Euro ($405 million) contract was signed Thursday by David Southwood, ESA's director of science, and Antoine Bouvier, EADS Astrium's chief executive officer. The company's Toulouse branch will lead Gaia's development.

Gaia will be the most accurate optical astronomy satellite built so far, ESA said in a statement. It will scan the sky continuously for at least five years from the second Lagrange point, or L2, located about 1.6 million kilometers (990,000 miles) away from Earth, in the direction opposite the Sun. This position in space offers a stable thermal environment, high observing efficiency � because the Sun, Earth and the Moon are behind the instrument's field of view - and a low-radiation environment.

Gaia's goal will be to build a highly accurate 3D map of the Milky Way. Its instruments will be able to determine the position, color and true motion of at least 1 billion stars. Gaia also could identify as many as 10,000 planets around other stars, and discover several tens of thousands of new bodies - comets and asteroids - in the local solar system.

Gaia measurements will be extremely accurate, the ESA statement said. If Gaia were sitting on the Moon, it could measure the thumbnail of a person on Earth. The spacecraft will use the global astronomy concept successfully demonstrated by its predecessor, Hipparcos, also built by EADS Astrium, which successfully mapped more than 100,000 stars in the late 1980s.

Gaia will be equipped with a latest-generation instrument payload and the most sensitive telescope ever made. Its design is based on silicon carbide technology, also to be used on Herschel, ESA's next infrared satellite mission. The focal plane covers about half a square meter and features 1 billion pixels.

Gaia will be equipped a deployable sun-shield covering an area of 100 square meters (1,076 square feet) to minimize temperature fluctuations on the highly sensitive optics. The satellite also will feature a new micro-propulsion system, intended to control its motion so smoothly it will not disturb the optics during the sky scanning.

"GAIA is our next grand challenge - to understand our galactic home, the Milky Way," Southwood said.

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VLT Spies Twin Supernovae
Paranal, Chile (SPX) May 12, 2006
ESO's Very Large Telescope, equipped with the multi-mode FORS instrument, took an image of NGC 3190, a galaxy so distorted that astronomers initially gave it two names. Then, as if to prove them right, in 2002 it fired off two stellar explosions almost simultaneously.

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