Astronomers Create Stunningly Lifelike Virtual Universe

Science Fields

A collaboration of astronomers, physicists and computer scientist unveiled May 8 the so far most realistic virtual universe, an unprecedented feat crowning five years of hard and imaginative work.

Named “Illustris”, the simulation is able to recreate cosmic evolution in a cube of space with 350 million light years long on a side (the light year, the main unit of distance in astronomy and cosmology, is the distance light travels in a year, which corresponds to roughly 9.5 trillion kilometers.)

It took researchers from several institutions led by Mark Vogelsberger (MIT/ Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) five years  to develop the sophisticated computer program which recreates the universe’s evolution in exquisite detail, using 12 billion 3-D pixels representing both normal matter and the far-more-abundant  but  yet-unseen “dark matter” which formed the web-like structure of the universe, attracting normal (atomic) matter at the intersections  of filaments to form galaxy clusters. 

The intricate calculations, simulating also the complex processes of supernovas and black holes, were done in three months of run time by 8000 CPUs (central processing units) running parallel. Researchers say, if it had to be done by a desk top computer, it would take 2000 years.

A Hubble Deep Field image (Left) compared with the Illustris simulation (right)

The simulation, which starts just 12 million years after the Big Bang, brought the cosmic evolution to our present-day universe in roughly 13.8 billion years.  Researchers counted over 41.000 galaxies in the simulated cube of space, similar to Hubble Deep Field images both in appearance and content, with the right mix of spiral and old elliptical galaxies. 

 "Illustris is like a time machine. We can go forward and backward in time. We can pause the simulation and zoom into a single galaxy or galaxy cluster to see what's really going on," says Shy Genel of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, a co-author of the study published in the 8 May 2014 issue of Nature.


  • 1. “Astronomers create first realistic virtual universe”, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics”, 7 May 2014