When we hear the name GAIA, our memory automatically zooms back to the Whoopi Goldberg-voiced Mother Earth from Captain Planet. This isn't that
GAIA, but it does
have to do with planets. Back at the turn of the millennium, the European Space Agency
devised an ambitious mission to map one billion stars
in our Milky Way galaxy -- in 3D (insert Joey Lawrence 'whoa!'). To do this, it enlisted UK-based e2v Technologies and built an immense digital camera comprised of 106 snugly-fit charge coupled devices -- the largest ever for a space program. These credit card-shaped, human hair-thick slabs of silicon carbide act like tiny galactic eyes, each storing incoming light as a single
pixel. Not sufficiently impressed? Then consider this: the stellar cam is so all-seeing, "it could measure the thumbnails of a person on the Moon" -- from Earth. Yeah. Set to launch on the Soyuz-Fregat sometime this year, the celestial surveyor will make its five-year home in the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point, beaming its outerspace discoveries to radio dishes in Spain and Australia -- and occasionally peeping in your neighbor's window.