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Gaia: science essays

In these short weekly 'essays', I have picked out some of the scientific highlights of the Gaia mission as they are emerging, or as they caught my attention. They are not necessarily the most important. They do not follow any specific sequence. They are not a complete review of a given topic. Many will be quickly superseded by new results. But they offer a snapshot of some of the discoveries that Gaia is making across all of astronomy. I've also included some essays on related topics, including the history of astrometry, and some more technical, managerial, or developmental aspects of both the Hipparcos and Gaia missions. In each, I have included a footnote DR1, DR2, EDR3, DR3, etc to indicate which of the (latest) data releases the essay refers to (described in essays #10 and #76), with DR0 signifying technical or historical material not connected with any specific data release. Who are they written for?  Anyone who might have a general interest in science and astronomy, including amateur astronomers, young scientists starting out on their careers, mid-career scientists looking in on Gaia for the first time to get a feeling of what is possible, and specialists looking in from different areas of astronomy, or physics more generally. My thanks go to many people: to all those I worked with on the Hipparcos and Gaia projects over almost 30 years, to those now dedicating huge reserves of their time, energy, and skill to the ongoing data processing, and to those who have entered into the Gaia catalogue and published the results described here. Click on the access PDF icon to access the file. Only a few references are included, and these are 'discreetly' hyperlinked for those who want to read more... where references appear in the form (Einstein 1908) or, clicking on the text (even though generally not highlighted!) should lead to the relevant online article. In a few cases, I've recorded an interview on the subject (see science interview page).

New: a subscribe page: to receive an email (usually Monday morning) when each new essay is published

New: a table page which lists all essays through to the end of 2023 (1–156 inclusive) in tabular form

New: these essays through to the end of 2023 (1–156 inclusive) also appear in a hyperlinked indexed form in the Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society (BAAS Vol. 56, Issue 1, 15 March 2024): ADS 2024BAAS...56a.008P

181. The Yarkovsky effect

A curious but important phenomenon in solar system dynamics

The Yarkovsky effect is important in solar system dynamics. For a small rotating body illuminated by the Sun, re-radiated thermal emission lags behind the incident radiation, contributing a component of force in the direction of its orbital motion. I explain why it is important, and how Gaia is contributing to its understanding.

17 June 2024


180. The spectra of solar system objects

What sunlight reflected from astroids tells us about their history

Photometry of minor solar system bodies provides information about their shape and rotation. Reflected sunlight encodes information about their composition and taxonomic classification, from which information about their origin and evolution can be deduced. DR3 gives reflectance spectra for more than 60,000 such bodies.

10 June 2024


179. Stellar masses from SB2 binaries

Gaia's contribution to fundamental stellar masses

Masses are one of the most fundamental stellar properties, crucial in determining their structure and evolution. Yet ways of determining accurate masses are strictly limited and, even today, only a couple of hundred are known to better than 1-2 per cent. I summarise how Gaia is contributing.

3 June 2024


178. Bifurcation in the white dwarf HRD

New evolutionary models inspired by Gaia's colour-magnitude diagram

The prominent bifurcation in the white dwarf colour-magnitude diagram, seen for the first time in Gaia DR2, was tentatively attributed to different evolutionary tracks for hydrogen- and helium-dominated atmospheres. Subsequent studies have focussed on trace amounts of `dredged-up' carbon being the cause.

27 May 2024


177. An intermediate black hole in M4?

Hints of an intermediate-mass black hole in our nearest globular cluster

Intermediate-mass black holes lie between the masses of stellar mass black holes, formed by single star collapse, and supermassive black holes, formed in the high-density environment of galaxy centres. Plausible formation mechanisms, but no definitive candidates, are known. I describe some insights from Gaia in the case of our nearest globular cluster, M4.

20 May 2024


176. Black holes in stellar streams

Stellar mass black holes influence the morphology of stellar streams

I look at how the existence of stellar mass black holes might affect the morphology and kinematics of the stellar streams that are now known to exist in the inner and outer halo of our Galaxy, and to what extent Gaia can help to distinguish between those that are rich in, or devoid of, stellar mass black holes.

13 May 2024


175. Black holes in open clusters

How we can infer that an open clusters hosts stellar mass black holes

The existence of stellar mass black holes has observable consequences on the dynamics of open clusters, which can in turn place useful constraints on their formation. I look at some early results for the Hyades open cluster, which suggest that the cluster should contain 2-3 stellar mass black holes in long-period binary systems.

6 May 2024


174. Proper motion anomalies

A fascinating subset of astrometric binaries

A subset of astrometric binaries evaded identification by Hipparcos, but they become recognisable from the difference in the proper motion determined by Hipparcos and that measured by Gaia. Recent work on these `proper motion anomalies' has underlined their ubiquity, and their scientific importance.

29 April 2024


173. The breathing motion of spiral arms

New insights into the dynamics and origin of spiral arms

In essay 114, I looked at advances being made in understanding our Galaxy's spiral arm structure. Here I will look at some remarkable insights into their kinematics. Gaia is providing confirmation of their `breathing modes' which, in turn, support some of the theoretical and numerical models being developed to understand their origin.

22 April 2024


172. The basic angle

Why was the basic angle 58 degrees for Hipparcos, and 106.5 degrees for Gaia?

For Hipparcos and Gaia, the `basic angle' is the angle between the instrument's two viewing directions on the sky. For Hipparcos, the basic angle was 58 degrees. For Gaia it is 106.5 degrees. What is the reason for the two fields of view in the first place? How is the angle between them chosen? And why is it so different for Hipparcos and Gaia?

15 April 2024

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