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gaia data release 3 documentation

1.1 The Gaia mission

1.1.2 Mission history and science case

Author(s): Jos de Bruijne

Hipparcos legacy

Whereas astrometry originated several millennia ago (for an overview, see Perryman 2012), the last centuries – and the last decades in particular – have shown exponential progress in the number of objects and the accuracy with which their positions, proper motions, and parallaxes are determined (Mignard 2019). These improvements have arisen as a result of improved technologies and instrumentation and of the possibility to eliminate the effects of the Earth’s atmosphere by going to space. Astrometry from space was pioneered by the European Space Agency’s Hipparcos mission, which operated from 1989 till 1993. The Hipparcos Catalogue was published in 1997 (ESA 1997) and the re-reduction in 2007 (van Leeuwen 2007a). An overview of the science revolution that Hipparcos has brought about is presented by Perryman (2009).

The successor of Hipparcos, originally named GAIA, was proposed in 1993 by Perryman and Lindegren as an interferometric concept (see Lindegren and Perryman 1995). Later, the mission design was changed to a direct-imaging approach but the name was kept for continuity reasons yet spelt as of then in lower case, i.e., Gaia. For more details about the history of Gaia, see Høg (2011, 2014).

Objectives of Gaia

The main science goal of Gaia is to unravel the structure, dynamics, and chemo-dynamical evolution of the Milky Way through the observation of more than one billion constituent stars. The data comprises astrometry and low-resolution spectro-photometry. For the brightest subset of targets, spectra are acquired to obtain radial velocities.

As explained in Gaia Collaboration et al. (2016b), the science case for the Gaia mission was compiled around the year 2000 (Perryman et al. 2001, for a more recent overview of the expected yield from Gaia, see Walton et al. 2014). The scientific goals of the design reference mission were relying heavily on astrometry, combined with its photometric and spectroscopic surveys. Some two decades later, the astrometric part of the science case remains unique, and so do the photometric and spectroscopic data, despite various, large ground-based surveys having materialised in the last decade(s). The space environment and design of Gaia enable a combination of accuracy, sensitivity, dynamic range, angular resolution, and sky coverage, which is practically impossible to obtain with ground-based facilities targeting photometric or spectroscopic surveys of a similar scientific scope. The spectra collected by the radial-velocity spectrometer have sufficient signal to noise for bright stars to make the Gaia spectroscopic survey the biggest of its kind. The astrometric part of Gaia is unique simply because global, micro-arcsecond astrometry is possible only from space. Therefore, the science case outlined two decades ago remains largely valid and the Gaia data releases are actually currently being used to address the scientific questions for which the mission was designed. A non-exhaustive list of scientific topics is provided in this section with an outline of the most important Gaia contributions. An actual overview of the scientific yield of Gaia DR1 and Gaia DR2 is beyond the scope of this work but readers interested in recent Gaia results are encouraged to consult, for instance, the proceedings of the 53rd ESLAB Symposium entitled ‘The Gaia Universe’ or the up-to-date ADS library that contains all peer-reviewed scientific articles describing Gaia science results based on the available Gaia data releases.

Structure, dynamics, and evolution of the Galaxy

The fundamental scientific-performance requirements for Gaia stem, to a large extent, from the main scientific target of the mission: the Milky Way galaxy. Gaia is built to address the question of the formation and evolution of the Galaxy through the analysis of the distribution and kinematics of the luminous and dark mass in the Galaxy. By also providing measurements to deduce the physical properties of the constituent stars, it is possible to study the structure and dynamics of the Galaxy. Although the Gaia sample ‘only’ covers about 1% of the stars in the Milky Way, it consists of almost 2000 million stars covering a large volume (out to many kpc, depending on spectral type), allowing thorough statistical analyses to be conducted. The dynamical range of the Gaia measurements facilitates reaching stars and clusters in the Galactic disk out to the Galactic centre as well as far out in the halo, while providing extremely high accuracies in the Solar neighbourhood. In addition to using stars as probes of Galactic structure and the local, Galactic potential in which they move, stars can also be used to map the interstellar matter. By combining extinction deduced from stars, it is possible to reconstruct the three-dimensional distribution of dust in our Galaxy. In this way, Gaia addresses not only the stellar contents, but also the interstellar matter in the Milky Way.

Star formation history of the Galaxy

The current understanding of galaxy formation is based on a combination of theories and observations, both of (high-redshift) extragalactic objects and of individual stars in our Milky Way. The Milky Way galaxy provides the single possibility to study details of the processes, but the observational challenges are different in comparison with measuring other galaxies. From our perspective, the Galaxy covers the full sky, with some components far away in the halo requiring sensitivity, while stars in the crowded Galactic centre region require spatial resolving power. Both these topics are addressed with the Gaia data. Gaia distances allow the derivation of luminosities for stars which, when combined with metallicities, allow the derivation of accurate individual ages, in particular for old subgiants, which are evolving from the main-sequence turn-off to the bottom of the red giant branch. By combining the structure and dynamics of the Galaxy with the information of the physical properties of the individual stars and, in particular, ages, it is possible to deduce the star formation histories of the stellar populations in the Milky Way.

Stellar physics and evolution

Distances are of fundamental importance for understanding and interpreting astronomical observations of stars. Yet, direct distance measurement using trigonometric parallax of any object outside the immediate Solar neighbourhood or not emitting in radio wavelengths is challenging from the ground. The Gaia revolution is in the parallaxes, with hundreds of millions being accurate enough to derive high-quality colour-magnitude diagrams and to make significant progress in stellar astrophysics. The strength of Gaia is also in the number of objects that are surveyed as several phases of stellar evolution are fast. With a billion parallaxes, Gaia covers most phases of evolution across the stellar-mass range, including pre-main-sequence stars and (chemically) peculiar objects. In addition to parallaxes, the homogeneous, high-accuracy photometry allows fine tuning of stellar models to match not only individual objects but also star clusters and populations as a whole. The combination of Gaia astrometry and photometry also contributes significantly to star formation studies.

Stellar variability and distance scale

On average, each star is measured astrometrically 70 times during the five-year nominal operations phase (with a further 70 observations expected for a five-year extended mission). At each focal-plane transit, photometric measurements are also made: ten in the Gaia G broadband filter and one each with the blue and red photometer (Section 1.1.3). For the variable sky, this provides a systematic survey with the sampling and cadence of the scanning law of Gaia (Section 1.1.4). This full-sky survey provides a census of variable stars with tens of millions of new variables, including rare objects. Sudden photometric changes in transient objects are captured and the community is alerted to enable follow-up observations (e.g., Delgado et al. 2019a). Pulsating stars, especially RR Lyraes and Cepheids, can easily be discovered from the Gaia photometric data stream, allowing, in combination with the parallaxes, calibration of the period-luminosity(-metallicity) relations to high accuracies, thereby improving the quality of the cosmic-distance ladder and scale.

Binaries and multiple stars

Gaia is a powerful mission to improve our understanding of multiple stars. The instantaneous spatial resolution, in the scanning direction, is comparable to that of the Hubble Space Telescope and Gaia is surveying the whole sky. In addition to resolving many binaries, all instruments in Gaia complement our understanding of multiple systems. The astrometric wobbles of unresolved binaries, seen superimposed on parallactic and proper motion, can be used to identify multiple systems. Periodic changes in photometry can be used to find (eclipsing) binaries and an improved census of double-lined systems follows from the Gaia spectroscopic data. It is again the large number of objects that Gaia provides that allows addressing fundamental questions of mass distributions and orbital eccentricities among binaries.


From the entire spectrum of scientific topics that Gaia addresses, the exoplanet research area has been the most dynamic in the past two decades. The field has expanded from detecting hot, giant planets to characterising smaller planets further away from their host star, including multi-planetary systems. These advancements have been achieved both with space- and ground-based facilities. Nevertheless, the Gaia astrometric capabilities remain unique, probing a poorly explored area in the parameter space of exoplanetary systems and providing astrophysical parameters not obtainable by other means. A strong point of Gaia in the exoplanet research field is the provision of an unbiased, volume-limited sample of Jupiter-mass planets in multi-year orbits around their host stars. These are logical prime targets for future searches of terrestrial-mass exoplanets in the habitable zone in an orbit protected by a giant planet further out. In addition, the astrometric data of Gaia allow actual masses (rather than lower limits) to be measured. Gaia data of course also contributes to the characterisation of exoplanet host stars. Finally, the data of Gaia provide the detailed distributions of giant exoplanet properties (including the transition regime between giant planets and brown dwarfs) as a function of stellar-host properties with unprecedented resolution.

Solar system

Although Gaia is designed to detect and observe stars, it provides a full, magnitude-limited census of all sources that appear point-like on the sky. The movement of solar-system objects with respect to stars smears their images and makes them less point-like. As long as this smearing is modest, Gaia still detects the object. The most relevant solar-system object group for Gaia comprise asteroids. Unlike planets, which are too big in size (and, in addition, sometimes too bright) to be detected by Gaia, asteroids remain typically point-like and have brightnesses within the dynamical range of Gaia. Gaia astrometry and photometry provide a census of orbital parameters and taxonomy in a single, homogeneous photometric system. The full-sky coverage of Gaia also provides this census far away from the ecliptic plane as well as for locations inside the orbit of the Earth. Through the Gaia follow-up network for Solar-system objects (FUN-SSO), alerts are being made of newly discovered asteroids to trigger ground-based observations to avoid losing the object again (e.g., Tanga et al. 2016). For near-Earth asteroids, Gaia’s census is not complete as the high apparent motion of such objects often prevents Gaia detection (de Bruijne et al. 2015). Gaia provides fundamental mass measurements of those asteroids that experience encounters with other solar-system bodies during the Gaia operational lifetime. Finally, the high precision and accuracy of stellar positions and motions provided by Gaia allow significant improvements in occultation studies of moons, asteroids, and Kuiper-Belt objects in the Solar system.

The Local Group

In the Local Group, the spatial resolution of Gaia is sufficient to resolve and observe the brightest individual stars. Tens of Local Group galaxies are routinely observed, including the Andromeda galaxy and the two Magellanic Clouds. While for the faintest dwarf galaxies only a few dozen of the brightest stars are observed, this number increases to thousands and millions of stars in Andromeda and the Large Magellanic Cloud, respectively. In dwarf spheroidals such as Fornax, Sculptor, Carina, and Sextans, thousands of stars are covered. A major scientific goal of Gaia in the Local Group concerns the mutual, dynamical interaction of the Magellanic Clouds and the interaction between the Clouds and the Galaxy. In addition to providing absolute proper motions for transverse-velocity determination, needed for orbits, it is possible to explore internal stellar motions within dwarf galaxies. These data reveal the impact of dark matter, among other physical processes in the host galaxy, to the motions of its stars.

Unresolved galaxies, quasars, and the reference frame

Gaia provides a homogeneous, magnitude-limited sample of unresolved galaxies. For unresolved galaxies, the sampling function is complicated as on-board detection depends on the contrast between the point-like, central element (bulge) and the extended structure (disk). For unresolved galaxies, the most valuable Gaia measurements are the photometric observations. Millions of galaxies across the whole sky are measured systematically. As the same Gaia system is used for stellar work, the astrophysical interpretation of the photometry of extragalactic objects can be based on statistically sound fundamentals obtained from Galactic studies. Quasars form a special category of extragalactic sources for Gaia: not only their intrinsic properties can be studied but they can also be used to construct an inertial, optical reference frame.

Fundamental physics

Relativistic corrections are part of the routine data processing for Gaia. Given the large number of measurements that Gaia collects, it is possible to exploit the redundancy in these corrections to conduct relativity tests or to use (residuals of) the Gaia data in more general fundamental-physics experiments. Specifically for light bending, it is possible to determine the γ parameter in the parametrised post-Newtonian formulation of gravity with high precision. Another possible experiment is to explore light bending of star images close to the limb of Jupiter in order to measure the quadrupole moment of the gravitational field of the giant planet. A common element in all fundamental-physics tests using Gaia data is the use of large sets of measurements. This is meaningful only when all systematic effects in the data are under control, down to micro-arcsecond levels. Therefore, Gaia results for relativistic tests are expected only towards the end of the mission and data processing, when all calibration aspects have been handled successfully.