Imagine an exploration video game where you can travel the entire universe with real distances, sizes, and positions. You could be the master of time and travel from Earth to Jupiter in a second. Right after, you could visit the black hole at the center of our galaxy, Sagittarius A*, leaving immediately for Andromeda. As soon as you leave our neighboring galaxy, you would see the Local Cluster submerged in the Virgo Supercluster, and beyond, you would begin to notice the filamentary structure of the universe on a large scale.
All this is now possible to an extent thanks to a team of researchers who developed an interactive map with which you can tour the observable universe, and everything we know within it.
The science and other stuff to know
A team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University used observational data from the cosmos extracted over two decades by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey project to develop an interactive map of the entire universe showing 200,000 galaxies. The map is free to use and can also be downloaded.
The Sloan Digital Sky Survey has collected enough data from the night sky to be able to build a map with the galaxies and notable bodies that we know of in the universe, positioning them at a certain distance, and considering variables such as their age, size, and luminosity.
The Milky Way is located at the bottom of the map. As we move away in distance (and consequently, in time) from our galactic home, we find spiral galaxies that correspond to our immediate neighborhood. We locate elliptical galaxies two billion light-years away, which astrophysicists believe are a later stage in the life of a galaxy in which, after being a spiral, its stellar content homogenizes and ends up becoming a uniform and more extensive disk.
Almost 4 billion light-years away from home, we find the redshifted ecliptic galaxies, which are receding from us at significant speeds. At 7 billion light-years, we find the first quasars, galaxy nuclei (supermassive black holes) that emit enormous amounts of light. Astrophysicists believe that quasars are phenomena of the early universe, which is why they are always observed so far away.
At 10 billion ñuz years, we find the last and solitary quasars that are moving away from us due to the accelerated expansion of the space-time fabric that structures the cosmos. Then the optical edge: the cosmic background of microwave radiation stretches out 14 trillion light-years from us in all directions and imposes a final wall. We can’t see further than that in the universe, which doesn’t mean there’s nothing else to see, just that physical laws don’t allow us to see it.
“Growing up I was very inspired by astronomy pictures, stars, nebulae and galaxies, and now it’s our time to create a new type of picture to inspire people. […] Astrophysicists around the world have been analyzing this data for years, leading to thousands of scientific papers and discoveries,” says map creator Brice Ménard, a professor at Johns Hopkins in an official press release.
“But nobody took the time to create a map that is beautiful, scientifically accurate, and accessible to people who are not scientists. Our goal here is to show everybody what the universe really looks like.”
Ménard hopes people will experience both the map’s undeniable beauty and its awe-inspiring sweep of scale: “From this speck at the bottom,” he says, “we are able to map out galaxies across the entire universe, and that that says something about the power of science.”