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Gaia aims for a billion stars as it lifts off for Milky Way 3D mapping mission

The European Space Agency has launched an advanced telescope it hopes will provide the most detailed map yet of our part of the Milky Way galaxy. Gaia is designed to detect a billion stars and map them in 3D.

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'Discovery machine' to chart the galaxy

"All is functioning normally," an European Space Agency (ESA) commentator announced during the agency's live webcast that showed the Gaia telescope's liftoff aboard a Russian-made Soyuz rocket from a base in Kourou, French Guiana.

The telescope, worth 740 million euros ($1.01 billion) was to separate from the rocket 42 minutes after launch. After a number of other sequences, which end 101 mintues after launch, Gaia will head on a three-week journey to Lagrange 2 point, around 1.5 million kilometers away from Earth where the earth will shield it from the sun.

The launch of Gaia

, the most sophisticated telescope ever built by Europe, is the center of a project to build an "astronomical census" of a billion stars, or around one per cent of all the stars in the Milky Way.

It will help astronomers calculate the distance, speed, direction and motion of the stars and build a three-dimensional map of our section of the galaxy. Gaia will also use its 1,000-megapixel camera to search for planets beyond our Solar System. Astronomers hope as many as 50,000 so-caled extrasolar planets could be spotted during its five-year life.

It will also hunt supernovae, or exploding stars, which are rarely observed in real time, and observe the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter to help the search for any rocks that may threaten Earth in the future.

jr/kms (AP, AFP)

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