Milky Way mapping team scoops 2023 Berkeley Prize
16 Jan 2023



The team behind Gaia, the largest and most precise three-dimensional map of our galaxy, has received the 2023 Lancelot M. Berkeley − New York Community Trust Prize for Meritorious Work in Astronomy.


​Gaia mapping the stars of the Milky Way

ESA/ATG medialab; background: ESO/S. Brunier

​Bestowed annually since 2011 by the American Astronomical Society (AAS), the Berkeley prize includes a cash prize and an invitation to give the closing lecture at the AAS winter meeting, often called the “Super Bowl of Astronomy."

The precision and immense volume of Gaia's survey has entirely transformed the way stellar and galactic astronomy is conducted. The mission's three data releases have included the largest low-resolution spectroscopic and radial velocity surveys in history, capturing detailed information and mapping roughly 1.8 billion Milky Way stars, including 10 million variable stars and 813,000 binary systems.

According to the prize statement: “Gaia's three data releases will long be regarded as major events in the history of astronomy, triggering a global partnership to better understand the origin, structure, and destiny of our home galaxy."

RAL Space played a significant role in the development and testing of Gaia's data processing software, built by a team from the University of Cambridge, ensuring the mission's phenomenal accuracy.


​Gaia mapping the stars of the Milky Way | ESA/ATG medialab; background: ESO/S. Brunier

“It is no exaggeration to say that Gaia is revolutionising our understanding of the Milky Way and our place within it," said Peter Allan, Head of RAL Space's Space Data Division at the time of Gaia's launch. “The unprecedented accuracy of Gaia's measurements of the positions, distances, and motion of over a billion stars has led to breakthroughs in many areas of astronomy, including the detailed study of when and how the Milky Way 'swallowed' several dwarf galaxies over the past ten billion years."

Each year the three AAS Vice Presidents, in consultation with the Editor in Chief of the AAS journals, select the Berkeley prize winner for meritorious research published within the preceding 12 months. The Gaia team is recognized in particular for an article published in Astronomy & Astrophysics in May 2021 describing the early contents and survey properties behind the Gaia mission's most recent data release.

Gaia's full third data release, which was welcomed worldwide on 13 June 2022, was accompanied by nearly 50 scientific articles by the Gaia collaboration. Reflective of the mission's impact on the science of astronomy, this immense body of work includes the highest cited papers in all of astronomy over the past year.

“The AAS and the New York Community Trust send our gratitude and congratulations to the many hundreds of scientists, engineers, and program/technical/support personnel at the European Space Agency and far beyond for bringing this transformative mission to life. Gaia will forever remain a landmark achievement in humanity's story of cosmic exploration," the AAS Vice Presidents commented in a statement.

RAL Space's Peter Allan said: “I feel incredibly proud to have been a part of this award-winning collaboration. I greatly enjoyed working with the team within the UK and around Europe when we were designing and developing the data processing software, and since the launch of Gaia at the end of 2013, we have been reaping the rewards."​