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New 3D map of the cosmic web

A team of astronomers has created the first three-dimensional map of the adolescent universe, just 3 billion years after the Big Bang.

3D map of the cosmic web at a distance of 10.8 billion light years from Earth. The map was generated from imprints of hydrogen gas observed in the spectrum of 24 background galaxies, which are located behind the volume being mapped. The coloring represents the density of hydrogen gas tracing the cosmic web, with brighter colors representing higher density.  Image cCREDIT: Casey Stark (UC Berkeley) and Khee-Gan Lee (MPIA)

3D map of the cosmic web at a distance of 10.8 billion light years from Earth. The map was generated from imprints of hydrogen gas observed in the spectrum of 24 background galaxies, which are located behind the volume being mapped. The coloring represents the density of hydrogen gas tracing the cosmic web, with brighter colors representing higher density. Image credit: Casey Stark (UC Berkeley) and Khee-Gan Lee (MPIA)

A team led by astronomers from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy has created the first three-dimensional map of a section of the universe 10.8 billion light years away, when the universe was only a quarter of its current age. This map, built from data collected from the W. M. Keck Observatory, is millions of light-years across and provides a tantalizing glimpse of large structures in the ‘cosmic web’ – the backbone of cosmic structure.

On the largest scales, matter in the universe is arranged in a vast network of filamentary structures known as the ‘cosmic web’, its tangled strands spanning hundreds of millions of light-years. Dark matter, which emits no light, forms the backbone of this web, which is also suffused with primordial hydrogen gas left over from the Big Bang. Galaxies like our own Milky Way are embedded inside this web, but fill only a tiny fraction of its volume.

Now a team of astronomers led by Khee-Gan Lee, a post-doc at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, has created a map of hydrogen absorption revealing a three-dimensional section of the universe almost 11 billion light years away – the first time the cosmic web has been mapped at such a vast distance. Since observing to such immense distances is also looking back in time, the map reveals the early stages of cosmic structure formation when the universe was only a quarter of its current age, during an era when the galaxies were undergoing a major ‘growth spurt’.

The map was created by using faint background galaxies as light sources, against which gas could be seen by the characteristic absorption features of hydrogen. The wavelengths of each hydrogen feature showed the presence of gas at a specific distance from us. Combining all of the measurements across the entire field of view allowed the team a tantalizing glimpse of giant filamentary structures extending across millions of light-years, and paves the way for more extensive studies that will reveal not only the structure of the cosmic web, but also details of its function – the ways that pristine gas is funneled along the web into galaxies, providing the raw material for the formation of galaxies, stars, and planets.

The resulting map of hydrogen absorption is first time the cosmic web has been mapped at such a vast distance. Since observing to such immense distances is also looking back in time, the map reveals the early stages of cosmic structure formation when the universe was only a quarter of its current age, during an era when the galaxies were undergoing a major ‘growth spurt’. The map provides a tantalizing glimpse of giant filamentary structures extending across millions of light-years, and paves the way for more extensive studies that will reveal not only the structure of the cosmic web, but also details of its function – the ways that pristine gas is funneled along the web into galaxies, providing the raw material for the formation of galaxies, stars, and planets.

Bottom line: A team of astronomers has created the first three-dimensional map of the adolescent universe, just 3 billion years after the Big Bang. This map, built from data collected from the W. M. Keck Observatory, is millions of light-years across and provides a tantalizing glimpse of large structures in the ‘cosmic web’ – the backbone of cosmic structure.

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