The Virgo consortium, an international group of astrophysicists from the UK, Germany, Japan, Canada and the USA has today (June 2nd) released first results from the largest and most realistic simulation ever of the growth of cosmic structure and the formation of galaxies and quasars. In a paper published in Nature, the Virgo Consortium shows how comparing such simulated data to large observational surveys can reveal the physical processes underlying the build-up of real galaxies and black holes.
The "Millennium Simulation" employed more than 10 billion particles of matter to trace the evolution of the matter distribution in a cubic region of the Universe over 2 billion light-years on a side. It kept the principal supercomputer at the Max Planck Societys Supercomputing Centre in Garching, Germany occupied for more than a month. By applying sophisticated modelling techniques to the 25 Terabytes (25 million Megabytes) of stored output, Virgo scientists are able to recreate evolutionary histories for the approximately 20 million galaxies which populate this enormous volume and for the supermassive black holes occasionally seen as quasars at their hearts.
Telescopes sensitive to microwaves have been able to image the Universe directly when it was only 400,000 years old. The only structure at that time was weak ripples in an otherwise uniform sea of matter and radiation. Gravitationally driven evolution later turned these ripples into the enormously rich structure we see today. It is this growth which the Millennium Simulation is designed to follow, with the twin goals of checking that this new paradigm for cosmic evolution is indeed consistent with what we see, and of exploring the complex physics which gave rise to galaxies and their central black holes.
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