AwardEuropean Gaia Collaboration Receives Berkeley Prize 2023

13 January 2023

Scientists and software engineers at Heidelberg University play a leading role

The European Gaia collaboration has been honoured for enabling a multidimensional “map” of the Milky Way. It has received the Lancelot M. Berkeley – New York Community Trust Prize for Meritorious Work in Astronomy. The American Astronomical Society gives this award annually for outstanding studies in astronomy. Playing a leading role in the collaboration is a team of scientists and software engineers from the Institute for Astronomical Computing, which belongs to the Centre for Astronomy of Heidelberg University. Since 2014 the Gaia research satellite has measured the distances, movements and properties of countless stars in the Milky Way and further astronomical sources. The objective of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) mission is to produce a catalogue of stellar data that is more comprehensive and precise than ever before.

Dr Michael Biermann, head of astrometric data evaluation and scientist at the Astronomisches Rechen-Institut

The Gaia space telescope has meanwhile mapped almost two billion stars, which have been made accessible to the public in the three data releases published so far. These stellar catalogues from the Gaia collaboration are to be regarded major events in the history of astronomy, according to the Berkeley prize statement. They have triggered a global partnership to better understand the origin, structure, and destiny of our home galaxy. Researchers from over 20 countries belong to the European consortium for the operation of the research satellite – the Data Processing and Analysis Consortium (DPAC).

“We are very proud to receive this special award as recognition of the achievements of the whole Gaia team. This success is also the result of our work in Heidelberg, which began 20 years before the launching of the research satellite in 2013,” underlines Dr Michael Biermann, leader of astrometric data evaluation and a scientist at the Institute for Astronomical Computing. The team at Heidelberg University developed, inter alia, highly complex software, which monitors the correct functioning of all Gaia systems on a daily basis and the quality of raw scientific data. Furthermore, one of the six Gaia data centres is located at Ruperto Carola’s Centre for Astronomy. Gaia ground-based optical tracking is also coordinated here. This serves to monitor the precise position of the research satellite in the sky to a distance of 30 metres and measure its velocity at an accuracy of 2.5 millimetres per second – one of the prerequisites for ultra-precise astrometry, Dr Biermann explains.

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) has been awarding the Berkeley Prize since 2011, supported by the New York Community Trust. The award comes with prize money and also an invitation to give the final plenary lecture at the AAS winter meeting. Prof. Dr Anthony Brown from the Leiden Observatory (Netherlands), Chair of the DPAC Executive, accepted the prize on behalf of the Gaia collaboration on 12 January 2023 during this year’s meeting in Seattle.