Extravagant Time-Lapse Reveals Milky Way's Shape 400,000 Years in the Future

New data from the ESA allowed astronomers to build a simulation of the Milky Way's distant future.
Brad Bergan

No one has ever seen 40,000 shooting stars burn across the sky at once, until now. The European Space Agency (ESA) created a 60-second time-lapse simulation of the next 400,000 years of our night-sky view of the Milky Way (featured below), according to a blog post on the ESA's website for the Gaia space observatory.


Epic time-lapse reveals Milky Way's shape 400,000 years from now

The new simulation involves 40,000 stars — all within 325 light-years of our sun — blazing through space, along with long trails of light following behind them. Every point of light represents a real object in the Milky Way, and every trail indicates an object's projected movement or drift through the galaxy in the next 400,000 years. The brighter and faster streaks of light are closer to our solar system, while relatively dimmer and slower ones are farther away from us.

The ESA researchers said the simulation showed an unsurprising pattern: at the animation's end, most stars are clustered on the right side of the screen, while the left side of the screen stays relatively empty. This isn't because stars are gravitationally pulled under the force of a newborn black hole — it's simply because our sun, too, is moving. This makes passing stars look more clustered in the direction opposite of the sun's relative motion in the galaxy.

ESA Milky Way Gaia
The motion of our sun through the milky way creates an artificial 'clumping' effect of stars on the right side of the screen. Source: ESA Gaia Mission / YouTube

Sun's motion through galaxy affects creates 'clumping'

"If you imagine yourself moving through a crowd of people (who are standing still), then in front of you the people will appear to move apart as you approach them, while behind you the people will appear to stand ever closer together as you move away from them," said ESA researchers in the blog post.

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"This effect also happens due to the motion of the sun with respect to the stars," added the ESA researchers.

New galaxy map adds 100 million objects

The new data behind the mosaic of cosmic lights was made possible via the Gaia satellite's third official data release (EDR3), which was publicly released on Dec. 3. The recent data dump contains extensive information about more than 1.8 billion celestial objects — including the precise velocities, positions, and orbital trajectories of more than 330,000 stars within 325 light-years of Earth, according to a recent ESA news release.

The Gaia satellite was launched in 2013 to measure the distances, positions, and motions of stars. The last (second) data release — which opened to the public in 2018, enabled astronomers to build the most detailed-ever map of the universe. This newest, third release added roughly 100 million new objects to the galactic cartography, said the ESA researchers.

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