At just after 9AM GMT, atop a Russian Soyuz 2 rocket, the European Space Agency's Gaia space camera was launched from its launch pad at the Centre Spatial Guyanais (CSG), or Guiana Space Centre at Kourou on the Atlantic coast of French Guiana in South America.

The Gaia project has been in the planning for over ten years and the specification for the camera was released a decade ago. 106 nine megapixel CCD sensors lie at the heart of the space camera, providing about one billion imaging pixels from the 104 main sensors.

Each sensor is massive in modern digital imaging terms, being 6x4.7cm, about the size of a 645 medium format camera frame. With only nine million pixels on such large sensors the pixel pitch will be very large and so provide high sensitivity. The sensors are custom made from silicon carbide and are designed to withstand the thermal rigours of space flight.

The Gaia camera, which was designed in Chelmsford, Essex (UK), should operate for five years and will photograph our very own Milky Way Galaxy in never before seen clarity thanks to its position with the Earth acting as a sun shield. Scientists expect Gaia's images to reveal major new information about the nature of our galaxy.