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Winning proposal: Astrophysics mastermind Gerry Gilmore

As astronomers prepare to capture data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission, project leader Gerry Gilmore tells Penny Sarchet about proposing a 35-year research programme.

“It’s not just something that comes out of the blue,” says Gilmore of proposing an ESA mission. “It’s not like writing a proposal for a postdoc or putting in a shopping order to an online supermarket.” The mission in question, Gaia, lifted off on 19 December 2013. It had been in the making since the early 1990s. “During the previous ESA mission, Hipparcos, there was a small workshop that led to a set of three or four proposals in 1993,” recalls Gilmore, who became one of the mission’s central leaders and advocates.

He is modest when describing how he ended up with such a crucial role. “The important thing for Gaia is that it started off as an obvious consequence of Hipparcos, which was all about studying stars and the motions in the Milky Way.” The timing coincided with the emergence of two “branches of interesting astrophysics” in the 1990s, one of which was quantitative measurements of dark matter, in particular near the sun. “And I happened to be leading the most successful of those programmes,” says Gilmore.

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