Modern photography of our universe, collected with powerful lenses aboard the James Webb Space Telescope and its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, offers us breathtaking views of distant regions of space. However, much of the universe remains imaginable only in our imagination, even despite the reach of modern space science observatories.
Now, thanks to a team of astronomers from Johns Hopkins University who have been compiling data over the past two decades, chair astronomers around the world are treated to one of the most comprehensive renderings, containing a detailed map of the Universe, ever made available.
Using data collected over nearly 15 years by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), the new map will offer the general public a glimpse of the Universe at its near-full size and in a way that was once only available to professional astronomers like the Johns Hopkins team was accessible.
The map depicts galaxies in unprecedented detail, showing these distant clusters of billions of stars in authentic coloration and actual position. Best of all, the new cosmic map is not only free to view online, but also downloadable by serious astronomy enthusiasts.
“This visualization shows a thin slice of the Universe,” reads an entry presented alongside the new cosmic map. “Its thickness is about 10 degrees,” noting that although additional astronomical data is available today, “it’s not possible to plot everything on a 2D map at once.”
Launched in 2000 in Apache Point, New Mexico, the SDSS is one of the premier facilities for multispectral imaging astronomy, also conducting redshift surveys with its 2.5-metre wide-angle telescope. The advanced redshift surveys performed at the facility use Hubble’s law to calculate the distances of galaxies from Earth, with the additional help of angular position data.
Over the decades since its launch, the SDSS has aimed its specialty telescope at slightly different regions of the night sky, allowing it to capture the vastness of the visible universe in unprecedented scope and detail.
The new map, which drew its data from these extensive SDSS surveys, was the result of efforts led by Brice Ménard with assistance from Johns Hopkins Computer Science alumni Nikita Shtarkman.
Ménard says Earth and its entire surrounding galaxy, made up of billions of planets and stars, is represented by a single pixel blob at the bottom of the new map.
“We’re used to seeing astronomical images that show a galaxy here, a galaxy there, or maybe a cluster of galaxies,” Ménard said in a statement recently released by the university. “But what this map shows is on a very, very different scale.”
The scale Ménard is referring to is a cross-section of our universe, containing about 200,000 galaxies, each represented by a single point like our own. At the top of the map, viewers see the first burst of radiation believed to have been created with the Big Bang around 13.7 billion years ago.
“From that spot at the very bottom, we can map galaxies across the universe, and that says something about the power of science,” Ménard said in the statement.
To observe this remarkable new map of the cosmos for yourself, Ménard and Shtarkman have made the map available on their own website, mapoftheuniverse.net. An option is available to also download four different high resolution versions of the map, available via a link in the bottom right corner of the webpage.
Micah Hanks is the Editor-in-Chief and co-founder of The Debrief. Follow his work at micahhanks.com and on Twitter: @MicahHanks.