A new virtual depiction of the cosmos developed by scientists in the US, Germany and England shows detail never before achieved in a computer-generated simulation. The numerical-based model Illustris covers the universe's 13 billion-year evolution, starting 12 million years after the Big Bang, or creation. It accurately depicts various galaxies' distribution and makeup.
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Mark Vogelsberger, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and his colleagues created a model of the Universe that follows the evolution of both visible and dark matter starting just 12 million years after the Big Bang (see video). While previous models have either been small and detailed or large and coarse, this simulation covers a region of space big enough to be representative of the whole Universe — a cube 106.5 megaparsecs (350 million light years) across — but is detailed enough to resolve small-scale structures, such as individual galaxies. Unlike previous simulations, it produces a mixture of galaxy shapes that fit observations well. Its also accurately recreates the large-scale distribution of galaxy clusters and neutral gas in the Universe, as well as the hydrogen and heavy element content of galaxies.
Vogelsberger says that the simulation's success is down to its improved algorithms, and the fact that its calculations include a rich variety of physics, such as the formation of supermassive black holes and their effect on their environments. The model, called Illustris, requires a huge amount of computing power: running it on even a state-of-the-art desktop computer would take almost 2,000 years, he adds. Even run across more than 8,000 processors, the simulation still took several months.