The Most Detailed Simulation of Our Universe Ever

Judi Singleton
  • 11 Dec '19

Live Science reports that a team called IllustrisTNG has unveiled the most detailed simulation of our universe ever to exist. The simulation models “tens of thousands” of galaxies in unprecedented realistic detail, spanning a total area 230 million lightyears across. The team’s simulation is also progressing, showing how the galaxies are born and continue to evolve. Scientists are hoping to reverse engineer some of the stranger galaxies to better understand how they formed amid surrounding normie galaxies.

The scientists from IllustrisTNG published their third round of findings in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. As the name suggests, IllustrisTNG is the second “next generation” simulation after the original Illustris simulation. This run is the team’s third and most complex.

Illustris The Original Series (TOS) also sought to recreate how the universe grew from a tiny young kernel, and where that simulation involved “only” about 8,000 processors working together, IllustrisTNG involves 16,000 and up to nearly 20,000 processors at times.

Scientists have added some new variables as a result of both added computing power and new developments in cosmology in the several years since Illustris TOS. Their simulation began near the birth of the universe and ran through cosmic time, which took over a year of full computing power. (By comparison, to fully compile an “open world” AAA game takes just a few hours.) As the simulation runs, it collects data in several formats. The available data from previous Illustris TOS runs totals 250 terabytes, which the scientists made available to the public. Civilians can also play in a browser interface like Google Earth, but for the universe. They plan to do the same for the data from IllustrisTNG.

Running a simulation this complex from basically the beginning of time has multifaceted benefits for scientists. This team’s accomplishment is the technical magic of the simulation itself—how it’s programmed, how it gathers data, and the sheer size of the computing power and the resulting virtual universe. The same way more particles means more realistic hair in our Pixar movies or Final Fantasy games, this fine grain detail of thousands of growing galaxies is a major technological step forward. Now, the scientists turn the data over to cosmologists and physicists.

Their diameter of about 230 million lightyears gets way past local phenomena like Alpha Centauri (four lightyears away) or the K2-155D Super Earth (200 lightyears away). At the 200 million lightyear mark are stranger things like the hyper-bright nova nicknamed the Cow or the ersatz Milky Way, 180 million light years away. To find the latter, scientists looked through images of thousands of galaxies. Imagine if they could instead run a computer program to filter out just the galaxies that match their qualifications—it’s galactic OKCupid on an unprecedented scale.

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