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Caution: Universe Work Ahead

Caution: Universe Work Ahead

Caution: Universe Work Ahead 🚧

We only have one universe. That’s usually plenty – it’s pretty big after all! But there are some things scientists can’t do with our real universe that they can do if they build new ones using computers.

The universes they create aren’t real, but they’re important tools to help us understand the cosmos. Two teams of scientists recently created a couple of these simulations to help us learn how our Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope sets out to unveil the universe’s distant past and give us a glimpse of possible futures.

Caution: you are now entering a cosmic construction zone (no hard hat required)!

A black square covered in thousands of tiny red dots and thousands more slightly larger, white and yellow fuzzy blobs. Each speck is a simulated galaxy. Credit: M. Troxel and Caltech-IPAC/R. HurtALT

This simulated Roman deep field image, containing hundreds of thousands of galaxies, represents just 1.3 percent of the synthetic survey, which is itself just one percent of Roman’s planned survey. The full simulation is available here. The galaxies are color coded – redder ones are farther away, and whiter ones are nearer. The simulation showcases Roman’s power to conduct large, deep surveys and study the universe statistically in ways that aren’t possible with current telescopes.

One Roman simulation is helping scientists plan how to study cosmic evolution by teaming up with other telescopes, like the Vera C. Rubin Observatory. It’s based on galaxy and dark matter models combined with real data from other telescopes. It envisions a big patch of the sky Roman will survey when it launches by 2027. Scientists are exploring the simulation to make observation plans so Roman will help us learn as much as possible. It’s a sneak peek at what we could figure out about how and why our universe has changed dramatically across cosmic epochs.

This video begins by showing the most distant galaxies in the simulated deep field image in red. As it zooms out, layers of nearer (yellow and white) galaxies are added to the frame. By studying different cosmic epochs, Roman will be able to trace the universe’s expansion history, study how galaxies developed over time, and much more.

As part of the real future survey, Roman will study the structure and evolution of the universe, map dark matter – an invisible substance detectable only by seeing its gravitational effects on visible matter – and discern between the leading theories that attempt to explain why the expansion of the universe is speeding up. It will do it by traveling back in time…well, sort of.

Seeing into the past

Looking way out into space is kind of like using a time machine. That’s because the light emitted by distant galaxies takes longer to reach us than light from ones that are nearby. When we look at farther galaxies, we see the universe as it was when their light was emitted. That can help us see billions of years into the past. Comparing what the universe was like at different ages will help astronomers piece together the way it has transformed over time.

The animation starts with a deep field image of the universe, showing warm toned galaxies as small specks dusted on a black backdrop. Then the center is distorted as additional layers of galaxies are added. The center appears to bulge toward the viewer, and galaxies are enlarged and smeared into arcs. Credit: Caltech-IPAC/R. HurtALT

This animation shows the type of science that astronomers will be able to do with future Roman deep field observations. The gravity of intervening galaxy clusters and dark matter can lens the light from farther objects, warping their appearance as shown in the animation. By studying the distorted light, astronomers can study elusive dark matter, which can only be measured indirectly through its gravitational effects on visible matter. As a bonus, this lensing also makes it easier to see the most distant galaxies whose light they magnify.

The simulation demonstrates how Roman will see even farther back in time thanks to natural magnifying glasses in space. Huge clusters of galaxies are so massive that they warp the fabric of space-time, kind of like how a bowling ball creates a well when placed on a trampoline. When light from more distant galaxies passes close to a galaxy cluster, it follows the curved space-time and bends around the cluster. That lenses the light, producing brighter, distorted images of the farther galaxies.

Roman will be sensitive enough to use this phenomenon to see how even small masses, like clumps of dark matter, warp the appearance of distant galaxies. That will help narrow down the candidates for what dark matter could be made of.

Three small squares filled with bluish dots emerge from a black screen. The black background is then filled with bluish dots too, and then the frame zooms out to see a much larger area of the dots. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and A. YungALT

In this simulated view of the deep cosmos, each dot represents a galaxy. The three small squares show Hubble’s field of view, and each reveals a different region of the synthetic universe. Roman will be able to quickly survey an area as large as the whole zoomed-out image, which will give us a glimpse of the universe’s largest structures.

Constructing the cosmos over billions of years

A separate simulation shows what Roman might expect to see across more than 10 billion years of cosmic history. It’s based on a galaxy formation model that represents our current understanding of how the universe works. That means that Roman can put that model to the test when it delivers real observations, since astronomers can compare what they expected to see with what’s really out there.

A cone shaped assortment of blue dots is on a grid. The tip of the cone is labeled ALT

In this side view of the simulated universe, each dot represents a galaxy whose size and brightness corresponds to its mass. Slices from different epochs illustrate how Roman will be able to view the universe across cosmic history. Astronomers will use such observations to piece together how cosmic evolution led to the web-like structure we see today.

This simulation also shows how Roman will help us learn how extremely large structures in the cosmos were constructed over time. For hundreds of millions of years after the universe was born, it was filled with a sea of charged particles that was almost completely uniform. Today, billions of years later, there are galaxies and galaxy clusters glowing in clumps along invisible threads of dark matter that extend hundreds of millions of light-years. Vast “cosmic voids” are found in between all the shining strands.

Astronomers have connected some of the dots between the universe’s early days and today, but it’s been difficult to see the big picture. Roman’s broad view of space will help us quickly see the universe’s web-like structure for the first time. That’s something that would take Hubble or Webb decades to do! Scientists will also use Roman to view different slices of the universe and piece together all the snapshots in time. We’re looking forward to learning how the cosmos grew and developed to its present state and finding clues about its ultimate fate.

Thousands of small, light and deep blue dots cover a black background representing galaxies in a simulated universe. A tiny white square is labeled ALT

This image, containing millions of simulated galaxies strewn across space and time, shows the areas Hubble (white) and Roman (yellow) can capture in a single snapshot. It would take Hubble about 85 years to map the entire region shown in the image at the same depth, but Roman could do it in just 63 days. Roman’s larger view and fast survey speeds will unveil the evolving universe in ways that have never been possible before.

Roman will explore the cosmos as no telescope ever has before, combining a panoramic view of the universe with a vantage point in space. Each picture it sends back will let us see areas that are at least a hundred times larger than our Hubble or James Webb space telescopes can see at one time. Astronomers will study them to learn more about how galaxies were constructed, dark matter, and much more.

The simulations are much more than just pretty pictures – they’re important stepping stones that forecast what we can expect to see with Roman. We’ve never had a view like Roman’s before, so having a preview helps make sure we can make the most of this incredible mission when it launches.

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