A new interactive map of the universe presents the entire known cosmos in stunning detail and pinpoint accuracy.
Astronomers created the map, which shows the actual positions and colors of 200,000 galaxies, using two decades of data collected by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The interactive map can be downloaded for free at mapoftheuniverse.netallowing the public to access information that was previously only available to scientists.
“Growing up, I was very inspired by astronomy photos, stars, nebulae and galaxies, and now it’s time to create a new kind of image to inspire people,” said Brice Ménard, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins University and co-creator of the map. , in a statement. “Astrophysicists around the world have been analyzing this data for years, leading to thousands of scientific papers and discoveries.”
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Despite this effort, no one had taken the time to create a map that was beautiful, scientifically accurate, and accessible to the general public.
“Our goal here is to show everyone what the universe is really like,” Ménard said.
The detailed map was possible thanks to the pioneering Sloan Digital Sky Survey, one of the most influential surveys in the history of astronomy. The survey is an ambitious effort to capture a huge proportion of the night sky through the 2.5-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. Every night for eight years, the telescope pointed its 120-megapixel camera at 1.5 square degrees of the sky at a time – about eight times the surface of the full moon – in slightly different locations, to capture a broad perspective of the universe.
Ménard and former Johns Hopkins computer science student Nikita Shtarkman used this data to recreate a slice of the universe containing 200,000 galaxies. Each dot on the map is a galaxy with billions of stars and planets. Our own galaxy, the Milky Wayis just one of those points located at the very bottom of the map.
Let there be light
A notable aspect of this cosmic map is the striking colors that are partly created by the expansion of the universe. As the universe expands, the wavelengths of light traveling towards Earth are stretched towards redder regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. The further away a light source is, the more extreme it is red shift.
At the very top of the map is the first light of the universe, emitted about 13.7 billion years ago, shortly after the big Bangas the universe expanded and cooled enough to allow electrons to form atoms with protons. The reduction in free electrons meant that photons – individual packets of light that act as both particles and waves – were suddenly no longer bouncing to infinity and were instead free to move around. In an instant, the universe effectively went from opaque to transparent.
Opposite the interactive map is the Milky Way, including the solar system and the Earth as they exist today.
“On this map, we’re just a dot all the way down, just a pixel,” Ménard said. “And when I say ‘we’, I mean our galaxy, the Milky Way, which has billions of stars and planets.”
Ménard hopes that in addition to showing the universe in all its beauty, the interactive map will demonstrate the awesome scale of the universe.
“We’re used to seeing astronomical images showing a galaxy here, a galaxy there, or maybe a cluster of galaxies,” he said. “But what this map shows is a very, very different scale. From this point down, we are able to map galaxies across the entire universe, and that says a lot about the power of science.”
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