LIGHTS OUT... FOR THE UNIVERSE by Patrick King II, Planetarium Educator


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LIGHTS OUT... FOR THE UNIVERSE by Patrick King II, Planetarium Educator

In 1374, Geofferey Chaucer wrote “All good things must come to an end." I’m not sure if a truer proverb exists. Humans, the Earth, all the stars in the sky, and yes, even our universe, will one day come to an end OR at least not exist in any form that we can comprehend.  

Let's talk time!

The Oxford dictionary defines time as “the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present and future regarded as a whole," which is about as good of a definition you're likely to find. The universe is a whopping 13.8 billion years old, the Sun is 4.6 billion, Earth is 4.5 billion, and humans have only been around for the last 315,000 years.

Now that might seem like an eternity, but, in the lifetime of the universe, that’s not even a drop in the bucket. It’s not even a drop in a hundred billion buckets put together! Some background before I continue...


How is the universe's age calculated anyway?

By measuring the distances and velocities of other galaxies, we can calculate the current expansion rate of the universe to determine its age. If we work our way back to where the universe started with the Big Bang, we can figure out how much time has passed since then.

According to Professors Fred Adams & Gregory Laughlin, the universe can be divided into five eras starting with the Primordial Era, during which the Big Bang is thought to have taken place. The second is the Stelliferous Era, and where we currently find ourselves.


Stelliferous, the era of stars...

Stars dominate this era, producing most of the energy in the universe. The lifespans of stars greatly differ; massive stars use up their fuel very quickly, some in as little as a few million years. Other stars can live billions of years like the Methuselah star, which is estimated to be 13.7 billion years old. However, the longest living stars are red dwarfs that can take TRILLIONS of years to convert all of their hydrogen into other heavier elements.

One thing is true for all stars though: they will eventually use up all their fuel and go dark.

As ominous as that sounds, we’re still about 100 trillion years away from the end of the Stelliferous Era. When it ends, the next age, known as the Degenerate Era, will take the stage with brown and white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes being the only objects remaining.

During the Degenerate Era, something truly frightening could happen...

Proton decay. Some hypotheses state that at a certain point protons, the positively charged particles in the nucleus of atoms, would break down into lighter subatomic particles... meaning any and all matter would simply dissolve.

(cue scary music)

Picture the end of Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War… but on a universal scale.

Guess I'll Die...

Eventually, black holes will dominate the universe to begin – get ready for it – the Black Hole Era, which ends after all black holes evaporate due to something known as Hawking radiation. The universe’s timeline has the Black Hole Era beginning 10^100 (also known as a googol… Google it) years after the Big Bang. At that point, the universe will become an unfathomably large and dark void with nothing except for a few subatomic particles that whiz around without much contact between them.

This brings us to the Dark Era and that’s about it… maybe. I won’t go into too much detail but there are several theories about what might happen after like the Big Rip, Big Crunch or Big Freeze.     

The thing to remember here is that we are still billions and billions of years away from any of this happening and humans may not even be around when it does…HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

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- Patrick King II, Planetarium Educator

Posted by Anna Leigh Goolsby at 3:36 PM
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