Incoming! How NASA and FEMA would respond to an asteroid threat

A near-Earth object on course to hit the planet would require nationwide or global coordination to minimize threat.

A near-Earth object on course to hit the planet would require nationwide or global coordination to minimize threat.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

It’s a scary scenario: an asteroid headed for Earth, just four years away from slamming into our home planet. It may be too short a span to plan an asteroid-deflection mission, but it’s long enough to present very different challenges from those of a more typical crisis, like a hurricane or earthquake.

NASA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) came together Oct. 25 to plan a response to such a hypothetical event. In a “tabletop exercise,” a kind of ongoing simulation, the two agencies tested how they would work together to evaluate the threat, prevent panic and protect as many people as possible from the deadly collision.

“It’s not a matter of if, but when, we will deal with such a situation,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate’s new associate administrator, said in a statement. “But unlike any other time in our history, we now have the ability to respond to an impact threat through continued observations, predictions, response planning and mitigation.” [In Images: Potentially Dangerous Near-Earth Asteroids]

The exercise, held in El Segundo, California, brought together representatives from NASA, FEMA, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the Department of Energy’s national laboratories, the Air Force and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, JPL officials said in the statement.

It was the third such exercise; previous ones had allowed for a deflection mission, but in this simulation, there was too little time for that type of response.

“It is critical to exercise these kinds of low-probability but high-consequence disaster scenarios,” FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said in the statement. “By working through our emergency response plans now, we will be better prepared if and when we need to respond to such an event.”

The asteroid in this test scenario appeared to be between 300 and 800 feet long in the first simulated measurements the participants were given. At first, the probability of a 2020 impact was only 2 percent, but as the group continued to simulate tracking it over time and the fictional months went by, the impact probability rose to 65 percent — and then 100 percent, in May 2017. By November of that year, in the scenario, they found that it would hit across Southern California or nearby in the Pacific Ocean.

The research laboratories’ scientists calculated the impact’s footprint, the population that would be displaced, the effect on infrastructure and other data that would slowly become clear over such an asteroid’s approach. That gave the participants the information they needed to plan for an evacuation process, and decide how to convey necessary information to the public in the most effective way over the course of the asteroid’s approach (plus debunk dangerous misinformation and rumors).

“The high degree of initial uncertainty, coupled with the relatively long impact warning time, made this scenario unique and especially challenging for emergency managers,” Leviticus A. Lewis, chief of FEMA’s National Response Coordination Branch, said in the statement. “It’s quite different from preparing for an event with a much shorter timeline, such as a hurricane.”

NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, established in January, supervises NASA’s efforts to track asteroids and other approaching near-Earth objects (NEOs) and coordinates its interactions with the other U.S. agencies that would deal with a potential impact and decide whether to try a deflection mission or coordinate an emergency response, as in this exercise. Europe has a similar NEO Coordination Centre in Italy.

“These exercises are invaluable for those of us in the asteroid science community responsible for engaging with FEMA on this natural hazard,” NASA Planetary Defense Officer Lindley Johnson said in the statement. “We receive valuable feedback from emergency managers at these exercises about what information is critical for their decision making, and we take that into account when we exercise how we would provide information to FEMA about a predicted impact.”

Although deflection wasn’t an option for this training scenario, there is research into that area. For example, NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, which recently finished its first planning stages, is largely a sample-collection mission, to pull a boulder off an asteroid’s side — but it is also slated to test out pulling the asteroid’s orbit slightly off course using the spacecraft and sample’s gravitational pull.

Philip Lubin, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara whose laser propulsion system has been incorporated into the Breakthrough Starshot program to send a probe to neighbor star system Alpha Centauri, originally intended the system to zap and deflect incoming asteroids.

Moon had a dramatic, explosive history, study says

The super moon appears in the sky in Cairo, Egypt, October 17, 2016. (REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

The super moon appears in the sky in Cairo, Egypt, October 17, 2016. (REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

A new model for how the moon formed in the distant past suggests a dramatic, violent collision that altered the Earth’s tilt and spin rate.

Today, the Earth is tilted just over 23 degrees compared to its orbital plane around the sun. According to the new research, scientists think that one possibility is that that angle was much different a very long time ago.

“Evidence suggests a giant impact blasted off a huge amount of material that formed the moon,” Douglas Hamilton, a professor of astronomy at the University of Maryland and a co-author of the new study, said in a statement. “This material would have formed a ring of debris first, then the ring would have aggregated to form the moon. But this scenario does not quite work if Earth’s spin axis was tilted at the 23.5 degree angle we see today.”


Instead, the researchers think that the impact might have knocked the Earth’s tilt off by as much as 60 to 80 degrees, and also set our planet spinning very fast. Eventually, the system dynamics became what they are today.

Hamilton added that their model is just one way the moon’s orbit could have been born.

“There are many potential paths from the moon’s formation to the Earth-moon system we see today,” he said in the statement. “We’ve identified a few of them, but there are sure to be other possibilities.”


The scientists also think the moon moved away from the Earth after the impact.

“As the moon moved outward, the Earth’s steep tilt made for a more chaotic transition as the sun became a bigger influence,” Matija Cuk of the SETI institute said in the statement. “Subsequently, and over billions of years, the moon’s tilt slowly decayed down to the five degrees we see today.” (The moon’s orbit is presently angled about five degrees compared to the Earth’s orbit around the sun.)

In other words, the system as it is now is the result of an explosive past that eventually became more stable.

The new research was published in the journal Nature.

Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger

‘Spiders’ on Mars: Citizen scientists investigate strange Martian terrain

"Spidery" channels spotted near Mars' south pole by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

“Spidery” channels spotted near Mars’ south pole by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been surveying strange “spider-like” surface features on Mars for years, and now citizen scientists are helping the orbiter hone in on areas that require further investigation.

These prominent surface features are found near Mars’ south pole, and are believed to be linked to seasonal changes. The planet’s polar ice caps thaw bottom-side first in the spring, causing carbon dioxide to build up and carve deep channels in the terrain, according to a statement from NASA.

“The trapped carbon dioxide gas that carves the spiders in the ground also breaks through the thawing ice sheet. It lofts dust and dirt that local winds then sculpt into hundreds of thousands of dark fans that are observed from orbit,” Meg Schwamb, a planetary scientist from the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii, said in the statement. “For the past decade, [the orbiter’s instrument] HiRISE has been monitoring this process on other parts of the south pole.” [Latest Photos from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter]

The Context Camera (CTX) aboard the MRO captured the images of these spider-like cracks and crevices, which volunteer citizen scientists have analyzed using the website “Planet Four: Terrains.”

With the observations from this citizen science project, NASA has added 20 new regions to the agency’s seasonal monitoring campaign on Mars. The orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera will explore these regions in greater detail.

“It’s heartwarming to see so many citizens of planet Earth donate their time to help study Mars,” Candice Hansen, HiRISE deputy principal investigator, said in the statement. “Thanks to the discovery power of so many people, we’re using HiRISE to take images of places we might not have studied without this assistance.”

The new places of interest on Mars include some unexpected spider terrain, areas where the surface is composed of material that was ejected from impact craters. Previously, those areas were not associated with carbon dioxide ice sheets, and therefore not thought to have spider-like crevices.

The spider cracks may have formed on the material ejected from craters using a different mechanism than the ice sheets, Hansen said. “Perhaps on surfaces that are more erodible, relative to other surfaces, slab ice would not need to be present as long, or [need to be] as thick, for spiders to form. We have new findings, and new questions to answer, thanks to all the help from volunteers,” Hansen added.

Scientists to study strange star for signs of intelligent life

NOW PLAYINGAre aliens building an extraterrestrial megastructure?

Starting on Wednesday night, scientists on the hunt for extraterrestrial life will begin studying a strange star that has generated plenty of buzz because of its unique behavior.

The distant sun is known as Tabby’s star, and what’s atypical about it is that its brightness does not remain constant. Data show that the star dimmed slightly from 2009 to 2012, and then its brightness dropped by two percent over a period of six months. Now, the Breakthrough Listen project at the University of California, Berkeley, has announced that they will peer at the star using a radio telescope to see if they can detect intelligent life.

“The Breakthrough Listen program has the most powerful SETI equipment on the planet, and access to the largest telescopes on the planet,” Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center and co-director of Breakthrough Listen, said in a statement. “We can look at it with greater sensitivity and for a wider range of signal types than any other experiment in the world.”

Related: Why is this star dimming? Astronomers still don’t know

One farfetched theory about the star is that aliens are somehow responsible for the star’s dimming, perhaps by having built a structure that passes in front of it, although Dan Werthimer, the chief scientist at Berkeley SETI, said he thinks that’s incredibly improbable.

“I don’t think it’s very likely – a one in a billion chance or something like that – but nevertheless, we’re going to check it out,” Werthimer said in the statement.

The Berkeley team is not the first to look for signs of life around this star, which is formally known as KIC 8462852, and no one has found anything yet. They’re going to spend a total of 24 hours over three nights gazing at the star using a large, movable radio telescope in West Virginia, but even in that amount of time they predict that they’ll gather oodles of data that will take a while to analyze.

The star has been a subject of much fascination since it was first described in 2015 by astronomer Tabetha Boyajian, an assistant professor at Louisiana State University.

Earlier in October, Columbia University astronomer David Kipping told that he thinks the most likely explanation for what’s happening with the star is a natural one— it’s just a “gap in our present knowledge” at this point.

Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger

Impact! New moon craters are appearing faster than thought

A 39-foot diameter impact crater formed between Oct. 25, 2012, and April 21, 2013, and was discovered in a before-and-after image created from two Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) images.

A 39-foot diameter impact crater formed between Oct. 25, 2012, and April 21, 2013, and was discovered in a before-and-after image created from two Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) images.  (NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)



New craters are forming on the surface of the moon more frequently than scientists had predicted, a new study has found. The discovery raises concerns about future moon missions, which may face an increased risk of being hit by falling space rocks.

The moon is dotted with a vast number of craters, some billions of years old. Because the moon has no atmosphere, falling space rocks don’t burn up like they do on Earth, which leaves the moon’s surface vulnerable to a constant stream of cosmic impacts that gradually churn the top layer of material on its surface. You can see a before-and-after video of a new moon crater here.

Previous studies of lunar craters shed light on how they formed and on the past rate of cratering, which in turn yielded insights on the age of various features of the moon’s surface. However, less was known about the contemporary rate of lunar crater formation, which could give insight on the risk of bombardment that any missions to the moon might face. [The Moon: 10 Surprising Lunar Facts]

To find out more about the present lunar crater formation rate, a group of scientists analyzed more than 14,000 pairs of before-and-after images of the moon’s surface, taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). These images covered 6.6 percent of the lunar surface — about 960,000 square miles — and could reveal when a spot was crater-free and when it later had a crater. The time gaps between observations spanned between 176 and 1,241 Earth days.

“When looking at just a single image, many of the newly formed features are indistinguishable from their surroundings,” said study lead author Emerson Speyerer, a planetary scientist at the Arizona State University at Tempe. “It’s only with these detailed comparisons with previous images that we can separate out these small surface changes.

The researchers discovered 222 craters on the moon that appeared on the surface after the first LRO images were taken — that is 33 percent more than predicted by current models. These were at least 32 feet across, and ranged up to about 140 feet wide.

The scientists also found broad zones around these new craters that they interpreted as the remains of jets of debris following impacts. They estimated this secondary cratering process is churning the top 0.8 inches of lunar dirt, or regolith, across the entire lunar surface more than 100 times faster than thought.

“I’m excited by the fact that we can see the regolith evolve and churn — a process that was believed to take hundreds of thousands to millions of years to occur — in images acquired over the past several years,” Speyerer told

These new findings also suggest that a number of young features on the moon’s surface, such as recent volcanic deposits, “may in fact be even a bit younger than previously thought,” Speyerer said.

Although the odds of something on the lunar surface suffering a direct hit by asteroidal or cometary debris is very small, Speyerer noted these new findings illustrate the potential dangers posed by the rocks kicked up by these impacts.

“For example, we found an 18-meter (59-foot) impact crater that formed on March 17, 2013, and it produced over 250 secondary impacts, some of which were at least 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) away,” Speyerer said. “Future lunar bases and surface assets will have to be designed to withstand up to 500 meter per second (1,120 mph) impacts of small particles.”

Speyerer said that NASA recently approved a two-year extended mission for theLunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that can help collect more before-and-after images of the lunar surface.

“As the mission continues, the odds increase of finding larger impacts that occur more infrequently on the moon,” Speyerer said. “Such discoveries will enable us to further refine the impact rate and investigate the most important process that shapes planetary bodies across the solar system.”

The scientists detailed their findings online in today’s (Oct. 12) issue of Nature.

Scientists study ‘Death Star’ to save Earth

The Martian moon Phobos.

The Martian moon Phobos.  (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

Computerized modeling of Mars’ moon Phobos has a connection with keeping the Earth safe from asteroids, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) announced on Wednesday.

Phobos has a huge crater, more than five miles across, and a new computer model out of the LLNL in California simulates the dramatic impact that could have caused that distinctive crater. The research is part of a planetary defence program at LLNL— in other words, studying how to protect Earth from a devastating impact.

“We’ve demonstrated that you can create this crater without destroying the moon if you use the proper porosity and resolution in a 3D simulation,” Megan Bruck Syal, a scientist at LLNL and a part of their planetary defence team, said in astatement about the new Phobos research.

According to LLNL, the object that slammed into Phobos and created what’s called the Stickney crater (which calls to mind the structure of the massive weapon on the Death Star from “Star Wars”) could have been about 820 feet across and been traveling at a speed of about 13,420 mph, in one scenario. Their work will be published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.


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The exercise at LLNL was done using a code called Spheral, and is part of a broader planetary defence initiative at the lab. That program has two elements to it, according to Nolan O’Brien, a public information officer for lab, which is part of the U.S. Department of Energy.

While NASA is keeping an eye on the heavens for objects that could threaten the Earth, LLNL is interested in deflecting such a hazard. That could involve ramming a spacecraft into the asteroid to change its course, or even detonating a nuclear device near it, O’Brien told The nuclear explosion near the asteroid would heat up one part of it, and that would act like a rocket engine, ideally propelling it on a safe course and taking Earth out of the crosshairs.

The second aspect of their work is what happens if the unthinkable occurs, and Earth is hit by a hazardous object, O’Brien said— in that case, they’d want to mitigate the damage.

Earlier this year, NASA opened a new office to track asteroids and comets that could come close to Earth. The Planetary Defense Coordination Office, or PDCO, is part of the agency’s Planetary Science Division. NASA also has an ambitious plan to launch a mission that would grab a boulder from an asteroid and place it in lunar orbit.

“Something as big and fast as what caused the Stickney crater [on Phobos] would have a devastating effect on Earth,” Syal said in the statement. “If NASA sees a potentially hazardous asteroid coming our way, it will be essential to make sure we’re able to deflect it. We’ll only have one shot at it, and the consequences couldn’t be higher.”

Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger

Air Force’s X-37B space plane mystery mission wings by 500 days in orbit

An artist's depiction of the U.S. Air Force's unmanned X-37B space plane in orbit with its solar array deployed and payload bay open.

An artist’s depiction of the U.S. Air Force’s unmanned X-37B space plane in orbit with its solar array deployed and payload bay open.  (United Launch Alliance/Boeing)

The latest secretive mission of the United States Air Force’s X-37B space plane has cruised beyond 500 days in Earth orbit since its launch last year.

The U.S. military launched the robotic X-37B space plane on May 20, 2015, marking the fourth flight for the Air Force program. A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lofted the spacecraft from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to kick off the OTV-4 mission (short for Orbital Test Vehicle-4).

Exactly what the winged space plane’s duties are while it’s in orbit continues to remain a tight-lipped affair. Similarly, how long the vehicle will remain in orbit has not been detailed. [The X-37B’s Fourth Mystery Mission in Photos]

The first OTV mission launched in April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit. The second OTV mission — which used a different vehicle than the first — began March 5, 2011, and concluded on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit. The subsequent OTV-3 mission reused the X-37B that flew on the first mission, and chalked up nearly 675 days in orbit.

So far, the U.S. military has not stated where the OTV-4 mission’s craft will ultimately land once it’s current flight ends. In the past, all three X-37B flights ended at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, gliding to a runway landing on autopilot.

New landing site for X-37B?

Progress has been made, however, to consolidate its space plane operations, including use of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida as a landing site for the X-37B. A former KSC space-shuttle facility known as Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF-1) was converted into a structure that will enable the Air Force “to efficiently land, recover, refurbish and relaunch the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV),” according to Boeing representatives.

The X-37B vehicle development falls under the Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems in El Segundo, California, the firm’s center for all space and experimental systems and government and commercial satellites.

The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office is leading the Department of Defense’s OTV initiative, by direction of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics and the Secretary of the Air Force.

A fleet of two space planes

Only two reusable X-37B vehicles have been confirmed as constituting the fleet. This current OTV-4 trek is the second flight of the second X-37B vehicle built for the Air Force by Boeing.

The reusable X-37B military space plane looks like a miniature adaptation of NASA’s now-retired space shuttle orbiter. The space plane is 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 9.6 feet (2.9 m) tall, and has a wingspan of nearly 15 feet (4.6 m).

The space drone has a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed. It has a launch weight of 11,000 lbs. (4,990 kilograms) and is powered on orbit gallium arsenide solar cells with lithium-ion batteries.

Onboard payloads

A few payloads onboard the OTV-4 craft have been identified.

Aerojet Rocketdyne has announced that its XR-5A Hall Thruster had completed initial on-orbit validation testing onboard the X-37B space plane.

It is also known that the vehicle carries a NASA advanced materials investigation, as well as an experimental propulsion system developed by the Air Force.

“It remains a very useful way to test out things,” Winston Beauchamp, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for Space told Inside Outer Space during last month’s American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) meeting in Long Beach, California.

Asked about any interest in increasing the X-37B fleet size, Beauchamp said that the number of vehicles currently in use is fine due to the pace of experiments it conducts.

Scientists discover a large planet orbiting two stars

This artist's illustration shows a gas giant planet circling a pair of red dwarf stars in the system OGLE-2007-BLG-349.

This artist’s illustration shows a gas giant planet circling a pair of red dwarf stars in the system OGLE-2007-BLG-349.  (NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI))

Astronomers have discovered a planet orbiting two stars 8,000 light years from Earth, NASA announced on Thursday.

While the system was first found in 2007, at that time experts were uncertain whether it contained one planet and two stars, or two planets and one star.

“The ground-based observations suggested two possible scenarios for the three-body system: a Saturn-mass planet orbiting a close binary star pair or a Saturn-mass and an Earth-mass planet orbiting a single star,” David Bennett of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement.

Using the Hubble Space Telescope and a technique called gravitational microlensing, they’ve figured out that it’s the first scenario: one big planet and two stars. The space agency said that this is the first time that the gravitational microlensing strategy has been used to confirm the makeup of a three-body system like this one.


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The technique utilized the effect of a star behind the stars they wanted to study to help them figure out that the system had two stars, not one.

“We were helped in the analysis by the almost perfect alignment of the foreground binary stars with the background star, which greatly magnified the light and allowed us to see the signal of the two stars,” Bennett added, in the statement.

The two stars are both red dwarfs, and are about seven million miles apart from each other. About 300 million miles away is the gas giant planet that orbits them, and it takes about seven Earth years to go around once.

This isn’t the first time that scientists have discovered a planet orbiting twin stars— a configuration sometimes compared to the planet Tatooine from “Star Wars.”

Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger

‘Shangri-La’ on Saturn moon Titan teeming with sand dunes

  • The "Xanadu Annex" on Titan: This synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) image was obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on July 25, 2016, during its "T-121" pass over Titan's southern latitudes.

    The “Xanadu Annex” on Titan: This synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) image was obtained by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on July 25, 2016, during its “T-121” pass over Titan’s southern latitudes.  (NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASI / Université Paris-Diderot)

New close-up photos of Titan, Saturn’s biggest moon, show its mysterious and massive dunes in more detail than ever before.

NASA’s Cassini orbiter obtained these images when it flew by Titan for the 122nd time on July 25, 2016. The spacecraft was just 607 miles above the alien moon’s southern hemisphere, according to NASA officials.

The new images include an area called the “Shangri-La Sand Sea,” a large dark region with hundreds of long and linear sand dunes. A part of this region had been imaged before, but the new image covers more ground and in greater detail. You can see new video of Titan’s ‘Shangri-La Sand Sea’ by NASA here.

Another image reveals the never-before-seen “Xanadu annex,” which lies just south of Xanadu, a region with an Earth-like landscape first imaged by Cassini in 1994.

Because Titan’s atmosphere is thick and hazy, its surface is not easily visible with ordinary cameras. But Cassini comes equipped with a special radar instrument that allows it to see through the obstructing fog by beaming radio waves down to the surface.

Cassini’s radio waves bounce off of Titan’s surface, and the different ground features reflect the waves back at Cassini with different timing and slightly altered wavelengths. By recording these changes to the radio waves, Cassini’s radar instrument can construct an image of the landscapes beneath Titan’s atmosphere.

Titan’s surface is teeming with dunes similar to sand dunes here on Earth, but they aren’t made of silicates like our sand. Instead, Titan’s sand contains grainy hydrocarbons that formed in its atmosphere before precipitating onto the ground.

The dunes reach heights of more then 300 feet, which is aboutas large as the tallest sand dunes on Earth. Compared with the average Earthly sand dune, though, Titan’s dunes are gigantic. Their structures can reveal information aboutTitan’s surface topography and wind patterns. [Titan Sand Dunes Reveal Clues of Saturn Moon’s Past]

“Dunes are dynamic features. They’re deflected by obstacles along the downwind path, often making beautiful, undulating patterns,” Jani Radebaugh, a Cassini radar team associate at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, said in a statement.

These new images of Titan’s southern terrain will also be Cassini’s last. The spacecraft will spend the remainder of its mission checking out lakes and seas in the north. After four more flybys of Saturn’s giant moon, Cassini will end its mission by plunging straight into Saturn’s atmosphere.

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Stunning map of the cosmos reveals over 1 billion stars

Gaia’s first sky map, annotated (ESA/Gaia/DPAC)

Gaia’s first sky map, annotated (ESA/Gaia/DPAC)

A stunning and vast map of the cosmos has been published by the European Space Agency (ESA), showing over one billion stars in the Milky Way and beyond.

The map represents “the largest all-sky survey of celestial objects to date” the ESA said.

A spacecraft called Gaia collected the information over more than a year, from July of last year to September, 2016.

“The beautiful map we are publishing today shows the density of stars measured by Gaia across the entire sky, and confirms that it collected superb data during its first year of operations,” Timo Prusti, Gaia project scientist at ESA, said in astatement.

The map shows the locations of more than 1.1 billion stars, as well as features like open clusters, globular clusters, and even other galaxies like the Large Magnetic Cloud, Small Magnetic Cloud, and Andromeda. The middle of the image shows the horizontal plane of the Milky Way, our own galaxy.

The ESA said that Gaia will eventually assemble “the most detailed 3D map ever made of our Milky Way galaxy” and that what it has already created is two times as precise as the previous best catalogue of the stars.

“Gaia is at the forefront of astrometry, charting the sky at precisions that have never been achieved before,” Alvaro Giménez, ESA’s Director of Science, said in the statement.

High-resolution images of the map– both annotated and not— are available for download via the ESA.

Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger