Context. The first Gaia data release (DR1) delivered a catalogue of astrometry and photometry for over a billion astronomical sources. Within the panoplyof methods used for data exploration, visualisation is often the starting point and even the guiding reference for scientific thought. However, this is a volume of data that cannot be efficiently explored using traditional tools, techniques, and habits. Aims. We aim to provide a global visual exploration service for the Gaia archive, something that is not possible out of the box for most people. The service has two main goals. The first is to provide a software platform for interactive visual exploration of the archive contents, using common personal computers and mobile devices available to most users. The second aim is to produce intelligible and appealing visual representations of the enormous information content of the archive. Methods. The interactive exploration service follows a client-server design. The server runs close to the data, at the archive, and is responsible for hiding as far as possible the complexity and volume of the Gaia data from the client. This is achieved by serving visual detail on demand. Levels of detail are pre-computed using data aggregation and subsampling techniques. For DR1, the client is a web application that provides an interactive multi-panel visualisation workspace as well as a graphical user interface. Results. The Gaia archive Visualisation Service offers a web-based multi-panel interactive visualisation desktop in a browser tab. It currently provides highly configurable 1D histograms and 2D scatter plots of Gaia DR1 and the Tycho-Gaia Astrometric Solution (TGAS) with linked views. An innovative feature is the creation of ADQL queries from visually defined regions in plots. These visual queries are ready for use in the Gaia Archive Search/data retrieval service. In addition, regions around user-selected objects can be further examined with automatically generated SIMBAD searches. Integration of the Aladin Lite and JS9 applications add support to the visualisation of HiPS and FITS maps. The production of the all-sky source density map that became the iconic image of Gaia DR1 is described in detail. Conclusions. On the day of DR1, over seven thousand users accessed the Gaia Archive visualisation portal. The system, running on a single machine, proved robust and did not fail while enabling thousands of users to visualise and explore the over one billion sources in DR1. There are still several limitations, most noticeably that users may only choose from a list of pre-computed visualisations. Thus, other visualisation applications that can complement the archive service are examined. Finally, development plans for Data Release 2 are presented.
- Astronomical databases: miscellaneous
- Galaxy: general
- Methods: data analysis