Understanding the vastness of the Universe is a stretch even for professors of astronomy, let alone the majority of us.
Take for example the mindboggling fact that there are 250 billion stars in our galaxy – the Milky Way – and 100 billion galaxies in the known Universe. Or that light from the Big Bang is still travelling (outwards) at 300,000km/h 13.8 billion years after the event!!
Creating a picture in our minds of Space, via large-scale simulations, is a bedrock of astrophysics and that’s where the EAGLE project is so important.
EAGLE, run by LJMU, Durham University and Leiden University, is an array of simulations about the formation of galaxies, some containing up to 6.8 billion particles and taking months to calculate on the world's fastest supercomputers.
Such is their impact that EAGLE has just scooped the Group Achievement Award from the Royal Astronomical Society, which cites the many scientific references to the project, but also its contribution outside academia.
First 'Earth-like' worlds
EAGLE’s flagship simulations were the first to yield a population of galaxies whose properties closely resemble those of real-world counterparts. Studies based on EAGLE data have explored areas including the growth of galaxies, black holes, the origin of the Hubble sequence, the relationship between galaxies and the gaseous cosmos; predictions for gravitational-wave events; and dark-matter detection experiments.
The first two papers from the EAGLE project prominently featured Professor Rob Crain of LJMU’s Astrophysics Research Institute and became two of the most highly-cited papers of 2015 in the whole of astrophysics.
Outside academia, visualisations of EAGLE results were featured in the IMAX feature film Voyage of Time, and at the UK’s Lumiere festival in both 2015 and 2017 which attracted 200,000 visitors. It was also the centrepiece of the popular Galaxy Makers interactive exhibit at the 2016 Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, a version of which, titled "Your place in the Universe", features in the 2021 online version of the Exhibition. PhD Alex Hill made a major contribution to "Your place in the Universe", creating an augmented reality app for mobile phones that let visitors learn about galaxies.
James Webb Telescope
Professor Rob Crain, who works on EAGLE with Professor Ian McCarthy, said: "Working on simulations like EAGLE is so exciting because they enable astrophysicists to explore so many different lines of scientific enquiry. Primarily, they help us to understand how galaxies first formed, and how they subsequently evolved over the history of the universe into the diverse population we see around us today."
A key ingredient of the project's success has been the contribution of hundreds of scientists around the world, who were not involved in the development of the simulations, but who have used the model to interpret their observational data from telescopes and satellite missions.
Crain adds: "With several of our ARI colleagues being centrally involved with the newly-launched James Webb Space Telescope, we're keen to see what we can learn about the very early universe to refine our next generation of simulations, which ARI staff and students are now helping to develop using LJMU's new high performance computing facility."