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The Milky Way unravelled by GREAT young scientists

Gaia is the European Space Agency's (ESA) ambitious mission to chart a 3D map of our home Galaxy. An EU-funded initiative has trained a critical mass of young scientists with the skills required to take up the challenges offered by Gaia observations.
The Milky Way unravelled by GREAT young scientists
Since ESA's billion-star surveyor Gaia began its all sky survey of the cosmos in July 2014, a rich set of data is sent to Earth, each and every day, for analysis. Over the next five or more years, it will make precise measurements of the positions and motions (and hence distances) for one billion of the, at least, 100 billion stars in the Milky Way. Repeatedly scanning the sky, Gaia will help answer questions about the origin and evolution of our Galaxy.

The EU-funded Initial Training Network (ITN) GREAT (Gaia Research for European Astronomy Training - ITN) focused on four specific fundamental questions: unravelling the origin and history of our home galaxy; tracing the birth place and understanding the astrophysical properties of the stellar constituents of our galaxy; deepening the understanding of planetary systems by linking the study of exoplanets to the origins of the solar system; taking up the grand challenges offered by Gaia in the domains of the distance scale and the transient sky.

A partnership of research groups at 12 universities in Europe, together with one in China, delivered a training programme structured around these research themes to seventeen young scientists. The GREAT network also included 15 academic associates providing access to complementary expertise and facilities and 4 partners from the information technology industry.

This combination of expertise from academia and industry delivered world class training to this large pool of early-stage researchers. Specifically, from March 2011 when the GREAT network was formed until February 2015, the GREAT-ITN fellows, each carried out a PhD programme at their host institutes, and were equipped with skills required to handle large and complex survey data such as that from Gaia. The research carried out, ranging from detailed assessments of the impact of Gaia in the study of the structure and evolution of the Milky Way, through to investigations of the stars in the Milky Way, and nearby objects such as asteroids, have laid a foundation for early science exploitation of Gaia, with its first data releases due in Summer 2017.

Many of the GREAT fellows have already taken up postdoctoral research positions at the partner institutions within the network. This new research community will use its skills in maximising the scientific potential of Gaia's observations by helping answer fundamental questions of astrophysics, such as how was the Milky Way formed and how does it work. The GREAT-ITN has ensured the development of the next generation of European scientists ready to lead the scientific exploitation of the Gaia mission.

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Milky Way, Gaia, Galaxy, astronomy
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