A time-lapse video showing 13 billion years of history in six minutes has been dubbed the most realistic simulation of the formation of the universe.

The simulation, called Illustris, is the first realistic virtual universe made with a computer and was created by scientists at the MIT/Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics.

Published in the journal Nature, it shows 13 billion years of "cosmic evolution" in a cube of 350 million light years.

Previously scientists have been unable to create such a simulation because they lacked the technology and an understanding of the underlying physics of the universe.

Mark Vogelsberger, who conducted the study, said: "Until now, no single simulation was able to reproduce the universe on both large and small scales simultaneously."

Illustris uses a computer programme to recreate the evolution of the universe including normal matter and dark matter. It uses 12 billion 3D pixels, took five years to develop and had they been working on a standard desktop computer, it would have taken 2,000 years to complete.

When the simulation reaches modern day, astronomers counted over 41,000 galaxies, including spiral galaxies like the Milky Way, football-shaped elliptical galaxies and galaxy clusters.

Simulation showing massive galaxy cluster. Illustris Collaboration

Because of the way light travels, the further away astronomers look, the farther back in time they are peering. If a galaxy is a billion light-years away, the astronomer is seeing it as it looked a billion years ago.

"Illustris is like a time machine. We can go forward and backward in time. We can pause the simulation and zoom into a single galaxy or galaxy cluster to see what's really going on," said co-author Shy Genel.

Vogelsberger told Nature magazine that the next challenge is to iron out any anomalies of the simulation, such as low-mass galaxies being built up too early.

"The idea now is to try to understand why this is happening and see what we are missing in terms of galaxy formation," he said.