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Gaia Research for European Astronomy Training - ITN

Final Report Summary - GREAT (Gaia Research for European Astronomy Training - ITN)

Gaia, launched Dec 2013, is the ESA cornerstone mission set to revolutionise our understanding of the Milky Way through its exquisite new determinations of the distances and motions of the stars in our Galaxy. The Gaia Research for European Astronomy Training Initial Training Network (GREAT-ITN) is shaping a critical mass of new expertise with the fundamental skills required to power the scientific exploitation of Gaia over the coming decade and beyond. Additionally it is crystallising the networking of the currently dispersed Galactic astronomy research teams — helping to form a truly world class cluster of European research expertise in Galactic astronomy.

The GREAT-ITN was an EC FP7 funded Marie Curie Initial Training Network coordinated by the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, UK. It was a partnership of thirteen beneficiaries, consisting of research groups at the Universities of Cambridge (UK), Leiden (NL), Lund (SE), Barcelona (ES), Heidelberg (DE), Geneva (CH), Leuven (BE), Peking (CN), Porto (PT), Poznan (PL), INAF (Bologna and Padua)(IT), the CNRS (Besancon and Bordeaux)(FR) and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (Heidelberg)(DE). It included four industrial and fifteen academic associated partners. The partners can be found at

The GREAT-ITN core objective was to provide world-class training to a cohort of seventeen Early Stage Researchers (ESRs), carrying out a PhD programme at their host institutes. The research projects covered a range of topics linked via the core theme of “Unravelling the Milky Way” by better understanding its origin and evolution, at the level of the Galaxy as a whole, and through the evolution of its constituent components.

The GREAT-ITN commenced 1 Mar 2011 and successfully completed 28 Feb 2015. Preparatory work activities took place before the formal commencement of the network that ensured a rapid commencement of network activities. The project website was established at along with an internal wiki site at The GREAT-ITN kickoff took place in Apr 2011 in Cambridge, UK. This established the network plan, and enabled the core research programme to be finalised. All seventeen ESR fellows were hired, located across the thirteen core beneficiaries of the network with all in place by January 2012. In terms of gender balance, 41% of the ESRs were female.

The core research activities of the network were carried out in four work packages (WP): WP3 the origin and history of the Milky Way; WP4 the stellar constituents of the Milky Way; WP5 planetary systems, worlds near and far; WP6 grand challenges. The main research programmes for each WP were defined at the kickoff meetings for each of the WPs. The ESRs were located across the WPs.

Training events occurred at both the network and WP level. The network ESR Induction School took place at the Lorentz Centre, Leiden (NL) in Jan 2012. All GREAT-ITN ESRs attended together with a number of additional PhD students from the ITN nodes (both beneficiary and associate). This event allowed lectures on each of the core science themes of GREAT-ITN. Their project work was presented in student presentations on the last day of the school. The graphics from their simulation were featured on the ESA Gaia website as a picture of the week. Following the induction school, a week long school on project management 'Managing Complex Systems' was organised for the ESRs only. This gave the ESRs tools and techniques in managing their research, managing their time, and insight as to how to function in a team.

After the initial induction schools, there were a number of topic and research theme schools. The school 'Art of Observational Campaigns' held on the island of Tenerife (ES) in Sep 2012 equipped the ESRs with tools and techniques required to propose, plan, carry out and perform the data analysis of astronomical observations. The school 'High Performance Visualisation for All Sky Surveys' was jointly organised by the GREAT-ITN, Microsoft Research and the LSST Consortium. Held at the Microsoft Research Redmond, Seattle, and the University of Washington, Seattle (USA), it gave the ESRs insight into the use of the latest high performance techniques required in handling large complex survey data such as that from Gaia.

The school on 'The Distance Scale in the Gaia Era' held June 2012 in Teramo (IT) focussed on techniques to determine astrophysical distances, including Type Ia Supernovae. The school 'Modelling the Milky Way' held Oct 2012 in Besancon (FR) focussed on the use of simulations and modelling techniques as applied to the galaxy. The School on Astrostatistics held 17-21 Jun 2013, Alicante (ES) provided valuable exposure to the latest techniques in the analysis and interpretation of Astronomical Big Data. The School ‘The Galaxy: stellar composition & dynamics’, 2-6 Sept 2013, Tenerife (ES) provided an insight to the Milky Way, whilst the final network school ‘The World of Open Clusters’, 23-26 Sept 2013, Padova (IT) provided a focus on these galaxy building blocks.

The ‘Gaia Live in Schools’ outreach event, held 25 Mar 2014, was a Europe Wide event linking over 2000 school children (typically 11-13 years old), in 34 schools across 10 European countries. GREAT-ITN ESRs and PhD students were on hand at each school to give live presentations on topics related to Distances in the Milky Way and Gaia. The session included a live link up slot where each school connect to Gaia Mission Control in Darmstadt, and the pupils were able to ask mission staff questions about Gaia and astronomy, with all being beamed live to the other schools. See the ESA blog at

Notable results have been produced through research carried out in the network. The ESRs have presented their work at recent GREAT-ITN meetings, including the WP update workshops, the GREAT-ITN final meeting and at the major GREAT-ITN Final Conference. The Milky Way Unravelled by Gaia brought together some 140 scientists from the GREAT-ITN network and wider, to discuss and present latest developments in our understanding of the Milky Way. All network ESRs presented their work, the proceedings will be published as a EAS Publications Series volume.

In addition many of the ESRs have made presentations at a range of major scientific meetings and conferences in the form of talks or posters. These include progress in the research areas of:
- Photometry of the inner Galaxy
- Classification of Gaia Photometric Alerts
- The origins of the solar system: migration and dissolution of the Sun’s birth cluster
- Finding the lost siblings of the Sun
- New insights on the dynamical evolution of the MW disc
- Towards an absolute stellar luminosity atlas
- Galactic Archaeology of the Milky Way
- Assessing the impact of astronomical phenomena on the terrestrial biosphere
- OGLE Small Amplitude Red Giants in the Galactic Bar
- Population seismology with large time-resolved astronomical surveys
- Constraining the Dark Matter content of the Solar neighbourhood
- Open Clusters as Tracers of the Galactic Disk
- Improving the cosmic distance ladder: the distance to the Large Magellanic Cloud
- Modelling the Shapes of Asteroids
- Gaia and the search of other planets : combining astrometry and radial velocity
- Towards a dynamically self-consistent evolutionary model of the Milky Way - A local map of chemical elements
- They have generated new tools and software, now in use in a number of key Gaia related areas, for instance in helping classify the transients already observed by Gaia,

Many of the ESRs are, or will be, taking up postdoctoral research positions, at network or partner institution. They bring their unique skills and insights in better maximising the scientific potential of Gaia, helping us gain a new understanding of how the Milky Way works.

The GREAT-ITN training committee oversaw and reviewed the training programme. It provided effective instruction to the ESRs. Feedback from each event is provided by the ESRs informed the shape of future events, for instance more hands-on practical work was enabled in the later schools.

The mid term review meeting took place in Bordeaux (FR) 4-5 December 2012. The GREAT-ITN received an excellent review noting that the project had met or even exceeded all its objectives.

Full details about the network can be found on its website at