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Astronomers marvel at the skies above

media An image of the galaxy captured by the Atacama Large MillimeterArray (ALMA), a group of radio telescopes in Chile. REUTERS/ALMA

Star gazers across France will turn their eyes to the heavens this weekend for the 23rd Nights of the Stars, the country's annual celebration of astronomy.

Several hundred observatories and other sites across the country will welcome visitors to share and explain the mysteries of the skies above.

Organisers have chosen the theme of "distances in the universe" to explore how astronomers measure vast expanses of time and space between celestial bodies.

Clément Plantureux from the French Astronomy Association says the goal is to explore some of the amazing stars we see in the skies every night.

“When we see, for example, Vega (the fifth brightest star in the sky), this star is 25 light years from the earth, and we actually see Vega right now as it was 25 years ago,” he explained.

The theme was chosen ahead of the launch of a European Space Agency satellite called Gaia.

The five-year mission is an unprecedented attempt to chart a 3D map of our Milky Way galaxy.

Plantureux says Gaia will give vast new data to help scientists understand the galaxy and astronomy in general.

“The European Space Agency launched in 1989 a mission called Hipparcos, but it measured and observed only a little bit more than 100,000 stars. This mission, Gaia, is going to be more accurate in terms of all the instruments that it’s going to carry on board. And also it’s going to measure many more stars than Hopparcos did 15, 20 years ago because Gaia is going to measure the distance and positions of a billion stars. So it’s going to answer this question of where are we in the universe in general. This map in 3D is going to maybe give us the first part of the answer.”

The satellite is set to launch from French Guyana in October.

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