“La missió Gaia celebra el seu primer any d’observacions científiques” (ESA, 28 Aug 2015)

Media: ESA (European Space Agency)

Title: “La missió Gaia celebra el seu primer any d’observacions científiques”

Webpage: http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/Gaia/Gaia_s_first_year_of_scientific_observations

Publication date: 25 August 2015

Recerca

El passat 21 d’agost, Gaia, el satèl·lit de l’Agència Espacial Europea (ESA), va completar el seu primer any d’observacions científiques. Després del seu llançament el 19 de desembre de 2013 i un període de sis mesos en òrbita, el satèl·lit va començar la seva rutina d’operacions científiques el 25 de juliol de 2014.

Ubicat al punt L2 de Lagrange, a 1,5 milions de kilòmetres de la Terra, Gaia observa estrelles i altres molts objectes astronòmics. Al cap d’un període de 28 dies que va servir per calibrar els instruments de mesura, el 21 d’agost, Gaia va començar la seva labor d’observació seguint uns paràmetres dissenyats per aconseguir observar tot el cel.

Des de llavors, el satèl·lit ha registrat 272 mil milions de mesures astromètriques i de posició, 54,4 mil milions de dades fotomètriques i 5,4 mil milions d’espectres.

L’equip Gaia ha realitzat una gran tasca de processament i anàlisi de les dades amb l’objectiu de desenvolupar un dels principals productes científics de la missió Gaia: un vast catàleg de posicions, distàncies, moviments i altres propietats de més de mil milions d’estrelles. Aquest gran volum de dades de naturalesa complexa requereix un enorme esforç per part de científics i desenvolupadors de programari de tota Europa, que col·laboren amb el Consorci per al Processament i l’Anàlisi de Dades de Gaia (DPAC). A aquest consorci pertany el grup d’uns quaranta investigadors i enginyers de la Universitat de Barcelona (UB), el Grup Gaia Galícia i un equip de la Universitat Nacional d’Educació a Distància (UNED).

Carme Jordi, investigadora de l‘Institut de Ciències del Cosmos de la UB (ICCUB-IEEC), afirma: «Aquest primer any ha estat clau per comprovar la qualitat científica de les dades i l’eficàcia dels algorismes de processament». I afegeix: «En particular, el nostre grup, responsable de la recepció de dades i el seu tractament inicial, ha superat les expectatives en la gestió d’aquest gran volum d’informació».
Per citar un exemple del procés de validació que s’està duent a terme, l’equip Gaia ha aconseguit mesurar la paral·laxi d’una mostra inicial de dos milions d’estels. La paral·laxi és la desviació de la posició d’un estel durant un període d’un any com a resultat del moviment de la Terra al voltant del Sol. No obstant això, aquest no és l’únic moviment observat per Gaia: els estels també es desplacen per l’espai, la qual cosa es coneix com a moviment propi.
Normalment, un any d’observacions no és suficient per conèixer la paral·laxi i el moviment propi. Per superar aquest obstacle, els científics han combinat les dades proporcionades per Gaia amb les posicions extretes del catàleg Tycho-2, basat en dades obtingudes entre 1989 i 1993 pel predecessor de Gaia, el satèl·lit Hipparcos. Això limita la mostra a tan sol dos milions dels més de mil milions de dades proporcionades per Gaia fins al moment, però ofereix algunes percepcions primerenques i útils de la qualitat d’aquestes dades.
De moment, Gaia ha detectat centenars de punts transitoris. El primer va ser una supernova, detectada el passat 30 d’agost de 2014. Aquests descobriments es comparteixen amb la comunitat Gaia tan aviat com són comunicats en forma de «Alerta Científica», la qual cosa permet un ràpid seguiment des de la Terra amb telescopis que permeten determinar la seva naturalesa.
Un punt transitori es va detectar en produir-se un sobtat i dramàtic esclat que va incrementar la seva lluminositat en un factor de cinc. Va resultar que Gaia havia descobert una variable cataclísmica, un sistema de dos estrelles en la qual una d’elles, una nana blanca calenta, devora la massa del seu company estel·lar el que produeix esclats de llum quan la matèria és absorbida.
Gaia ha descobert multitud d’estels la lluminositat dels quals sofreix una sèrie de canvis regulars en el temps. El satèl·lit ha proporcionat corbes detallades de lluminositat per a dotzenes d’estels variables de tipus RR Lyrae en el Núvol de Magallanes. Aquests detalls van permetre comprovar la gran qualitat de les dades.
Un altre dels curiosos objectes detectats per Gaia durant aquest primer any d’observacions és la nebulosa Ull de Gat, una nebulosa planetària també coneguda com NGC 6543, situada prop del Polo Nord Eclíptic. Les nebuloses planetàries es formen quan les capes exteriors d’un estel de baixa massa s’expulsen i interaccionen amb el mitjà interestel·lar que les envolta, la qual cosa dóna lloc a una nana blanca compacta. Gaia ha realitzat més de 200 observacions de la nebulosa Ull de Gat i registrat més de 84.000 deteccions que perfilen de manera detallada l’entramat de filaments gasosos pels quals aquests objectes són coneguts. Atès que les observacions continuen, Gaia podrà observar l’expansió dels nusos nebulars en aquesta i altres nebuloses planetàries.
Més a prop de nosaltres, Gaia ha detectat un gran nombre d’asteroides, els petits cossos rocosos que poblen el nostre sistema solar, principalment entre les òrbites de Mart i Júpiter. Els científics de l’equip Gaia han desenvolupat un programari especial per observar-los i relacionar-los amb les òrbites d’altres asteroides ja coneguts amb l’objectiu de distingir-los de la resta de dades amb els quals comptem per estudiar els estels. Però, al seu torn, aquesta informació s’utilitzarà per caracteritzar els asteroides ja coneguts i descobrir-ne milers de nous.
Finalment, a més dels mesuraments astronòmics i fotomètriques que Gaia realitza, el satèl·lit ha recollit els espectres de molts estels. Aquestes dades serviran principalment per determinar els moviments estel·lars al llarg del camp de visió en mesurar els canvis de posició relatius de les línies d’absorció dels espectres com a conseqüència de l’efecte Doppler. No obstant això, en l’espectre d’alguns estels calents, Gaia també ha observat línies d’absorció en el material interestel·lar que permetran als científics mesurar la seva distribució.
«Tots aquests exemples confirmen la revolució que la missió Gaia representa per a l’astrofísica. Estem expectants davant la publicació de les primeres dades científiques l’estiu de 2016», subratlla Eduard Masana, investigador de l’ICCUB-IEEC.
Participació de la UB a la missió Gaia

Els integrants de l’equip Gaia-UB són membres de l’Institut de Ciències del Cosmos de la UB (ICCUB) i de l’Institut d’Estudis Espacials de Catalunya  (IEEC), així com del Departament d’Astronomia i Meteorologia de la UB. Aquest equip, que participa en la missió des dels inicis, ha contribuït a definir alguns dels instruments i ha liderat el grup encarregat de les simulacions que han fet possible la posada a punt del programari per processar les dades. A més, és l’equip responsable del processament inicial de les dades.

Els experts de la UB també estan elaborant eines per a l’explotació científica de les dades obtingudes des de terra per complementar les de Gaia, i lideren la construcció dels catàlegs de la missió, tant els intermedis com el catàleg final. El Centre de Processament de Dades de Barcelona —on s’inclouen el CESCA i el Barcelona Supercomputing Center— proporciona recursos per executar part de les operacions durant tota la missió, i ha estat un aliat imprescindible en la simulació de la galàxia i les observacions per a totes les tasques preparatòries i de verificació de la cadena de processament.

Més informació en aquest enllaç de la ESA

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