This is what happens when you shoot an incredibly high-resolution 1 billion pixel camera into space and instruct them to photograph every single star they can see.
The image above (and an easier-to-use) (scan version below) was produced by Gaia the European Space Agency, whose mission is to create a detailed three-dimensional map of the stars of our galaxy. And it really is the largest 3D star atlas ever assembled.
Gaia's latest map (click to find a very cool interactive version), released Wednesday, includes 1.7 billion stars. That's about 700 million more than the last update in 201
This database is not just for making pretty pictures. It also contains information about distance, movement and color (useful in determining temperature and age) of about 1.3 billion stars. It is a 3D, moving Atlas of the Milky Way.
Building such a tool is harder than you can imagine. As the earth moves constantly around the sun, the apparent location of the stars also changes during the year and needs to be controlled. For some stars, "the accuracy means that earthbound observers can see a euro coin lying on the lunar surface," says a ESA press release.
Gaia uses a super-strong camera and two telescopes to determine the exact position of each star in the sky (making about dozens of observations of each star). It then keeps track of the brightness, size, and temperature of each star.
The Gaia Database also contains information about asteroids, nearby galaxies, and the surface temperatures of 100 million stars. And astronomers can explore how the cosmos moves, make observations about the formation of the galaxy, and possibly even find new planets.
But the card is still not complete. There are probably more than 100 billion stars in our galaxy. ESA plans to collect data on 2 billion stars by 2022.
Here you can access the entire database. And here you will find an interactive map of all stars.
And if you have one of these VR attachments for your smartphone, you can plunge into a 360-degree window into the cosmos that consists of the Gaia dataset.
Gaia is not the only project mapping the cosmos into absurd details
There are several such projects that provide dazzling results.
Here you can feel really small: the Sloan Digital Sky Survey III, a digitized atlas of the known Universe. The full study, published in 2016, shows a total of 1.2 million galaxies in three dimensions. That is, it shows not only their positions in the sky, but also their distance from the earth.
Below is a picture from the survey. Each of these 48,741 points represents a galaxy. Every galaxy is a collection of billions of stars. The stars themselves trap untold planets, asteroids and possibly even life in their gravitational clutches. This picture is only a twentieth of the night sky, a mere pinprick of a window into the universe.
Want to feel smaller? Further reading.