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Researchers create world-first 'time machine' simulations of the distant universe 11 billion years ago

"Like finding an old black-and-white picture of your grandfather and creating a video of his life."

Researchers create world-first 'time machine' simulations of the distant universe 11 billion years ago
Screenshots from the simulation. Ata et al.

Scientists developed world-first simulations that recreated the entire life cycle of some of the largest and most distant known galaxies in the observable universe, a press statement reveals.

The researchers worked on cosmological simulations, which have so far only been used to recreate nearby regions of the universe.

These new simulations, designed to reproduce observable structures in the universe and show how they interact with each other, are the first to recreate parts of the distant universe in such detail.

'A full simulation of the real distant universe'

The researchers, who published their work in the journal Nature Astronomy, focused on distant structures called massive galaxy protoclusters, which are ancient ancestors of galaxy clusters observable in the universe today.

"We wanted to try developing a full simulation of the real distant universe to see how structures started out and how they ended," explained Metin Ata, the first author of the study, from the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe Project.

Another researcher, Khee-Gan Lee, said the development of the simulation felt like building a time machine, as it allowed them to recreate cosmic events from the ancient past. "It's like finding an old black-and-white picture of your grandfather and creating a video of his life," he said.

Using this analogy, the researchers used data on "young" grandparent galaxies 11 billion light-years away before fast-forwarding them to show how clusters of galaxies would then form. As a point of reference, the most distant observed galaxy from Earth is GN-z11, which is located some 13.5 billion light-years from Earth,

Testing the standard model of cosmology

Part of the reason the researchers created their simulations was to study the standard model of cosmology. They used their work to find evidence of three theorized galaxy protoclusters and also suggested that another one is unlikely to have existed. They also identified five other structures that formed consistently in their simulations, including the Hyperion proto-supercluster — the largest and earliest proto-supercluster known to date.

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The scientists said one of the biggest challenges was accounting for the massive scale of these ancient galaxy clusters in their simulations. "This is something that is very important for the fate of those structures, whether they are isolated or associated with a bigger structure," Alta said. "If you don't take the environment into account, then you get completely different answers. We were able to take the large-scale environment into account consistently because we have a full simulation, and that's why our prediction is more stable."

The researchers said their simulations are already being used to help other projects, including studies on the absorption lines of distant quasars and the cosmological environment of galaxies. In March, MIT scientists announced they had developed the most detailed simulation of the early universe to date. Such projects will help to further our understanding of the cosmos as scientists compare data from the simulations to the increasingly-impressive observations of the James Webb Space Telescope and other similar missions.

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