Trade and Industry secretary Patricia Hewitt yesterday launched a £1.4m supercomputer capable of making 10 billion calculations per second that should help cosmologists map the entire history of the universe on its first simulation programme.

Dubbed 'the time machine' the computer, based in the physics department at the University of Durham, uses its 152 processors to calculate astronomy data to compile simulations of how the universe was created.

"The new machine will allow us to recreate the entire evolution of the universe, from its hot Big Bang to the present," said Professor Carlos Frenk, director of the institute of cosmology at Durham University in a statement.

Containing a mind-boggling 112GB of RAM the system holds data from billions of observations about the behaviour of stars, gases and galaxies collected by scientists and astronomers, which it then manipulates to conduct complex calculations on how the solar system and galaxies have evolved.

"We are able to instruct the supercomputer on how to make artificial universes which can be compared to astronomical observations," said Professor Frenk.

The DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) has invested £18m in the project alongside funding from other sources, including the Physics and Astronomy Research Council.

"This is a stunning resource for astronomical research in Britain," said Ian Halliday, chief executive of PPARC. "We are poised to confront one of the grandest challenges of science - the understanding of how our universe was created and how it evolved to its present state."