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Gaia: science essays


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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 Many will be quickly superseded by new results.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 even 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).

The compilation of all 52 essays from 2021 (143 pp) is available here 

The compilation of all 52 essays from 2022 (111 pp) is available here

153. The solar motion

New approaches to measuring this fundamental quantity

Gaia represents a major advance in understanding our Galaxy's disk and halo kinematics. Here, I will look at the specific problem of determining the 'solar motion'. I explain what it is, why it is important, and how it is determined. As well as the more classical approach, methods are being developed to measure all three components with respect to the halo.

4 December 2023


152. M dwarfs and the Jao gap

Subtle but important clues in the HR diagram

In essay 42, I described some new features in the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, including a narrow gap in the M dwarf sequence, first reported in the DR2 data. Here I look at further details of this interesting feature. As Baraffe & Chabrier wrote in 2018: "Just a small gap in a colour-magnitude diagram could provide a deep insight into the interior structure of low-mass stars."

27 November 2023


151. The Hyades main sequence

How Gaia is tightening our knowledge of the Hyades main sequence

The Hyades is the nearest open cluster. Even so, distance uncertainties have limited the definition of its main sequence, and hence its ability to constrain evolutionary models. It has nevertheless been used as the basic observational material for various fundamental relationships in astrophysics. Gaia DR3 astrometry and photometry is transforming its understanding.

20 November 2023


150. Convection - and the mixing length

How Gaia is contributing to the understanding of convection inside stars

Convection represents one of the dominant sources of uncertainty in current stellar evolutionary models, propagating through to substantial uncertainties in ages and, in turn, understanding of the chemical evolution of the Galaxy. I outline the `mixing length theory' of convection, and Gaia's contribution to characterising the associated `mixing length parameter'.

13 November 2023


149. Gravito-inertial asteroseismology

Gaia compares favourably with Kepler

I look at some other recent results on the non-radial pulsators in the SPB and Gamma Dor classes. These stars show periodic variations as a result of the usual restoring force of gravity (or buoyancy), as well as due to Coriolis forces resulting from stellar rotation. Many astrophysical results from Gaia compare favourably with the much denser sampling from Kepler.

6 November 2023


148. Non-radial pulsators

More than 10,000 SPB and Gamma Dor pulsators

I have discussed Gaia variables in several essays, focusing on Cepheids (43), on RR~Lyrae (45), their detection and classification (61), their distribution across the Hertzsprung--Russell diagram (62), and in the context of citizen science (132). Here I look at some new insights into the non-radial g-mode pulsators in the SPB and Gamma Dor class.

30 October 2023


147. Videos and visualisations: part 2

Some of the latest video animations for Gaia

In essay 54, in January 2022, I gave links to some of the videos, animations, visualisations, and `fly-throughs' made to illustrate the science that Gaia is addressing. DR3 was released in June 2022, and many new explanatory videos have been made since. This is an introduction to some of the many video animations and illustrations that now exist.

23 October 2023


146. Benford's law - and astrometry

A curious mathematical property

A curious property of many collections of numbers, including naturally occurring data, is that the leading digits are not uniformly distributed, but are skewed toward smaller values. As Benford's law, it has been considered in many contexts, including identifying suspicious accounting. I consider it here in the context of the Gaia DR2 parallaxes.

16 October 2023


145. Spectroscopic binaries

New insights in orbit circularisation

Included in the DR3 data release are some 180,000 single-lined spectroscopic binaries, a colossal increase in numbers enabling the study of many aspects of short-period binaries. I look here at some new insights into orbit circularisation, where the Gaia data point to the process operating most efficiently in the pre-main sequence evolutionary phase.

9 October 2023


144. How many open clusters?

An explosion of new discoveries with Gaia

Gaia is transforming the study of open clusters. Pre-2016, some 3000 clusters had been identified. But Gaia has shown that more than half of these are unreal, being simply asterisms. In their place, from nearly 25,000 new discoveries reported with Gaia (some duplicated), there are today nearly 14,000 unique clusters known in our Galaxy.

2 October 2023

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