...20 billion years. Space.com reports that Robert Caldwell from Dartmouth University and Marc Kamionkowski and Nevin Weinberg from the California Institute of Technology have developed a fascinating Doomsday theory: The universe will die as galaxies, stars, and planets are violently ripped apart.In the 1990s, scientists realized that the universe is expanding, much like it's being sucked outward. So Caldwell asked himself this question: What would happen if the rate of acceleration increased instead of proceeding at a steady pace? The answer is what he calls the Big Rip. The universe will be shredded. Space.com senior science writer Robert Roy Britt says, "Scientifically it is just about the most repulsive notion ever conceived."
The good news, besides the fact that it won't happen for 20 billion years, is that even Caldwell admits it's a "pretty fantastic possibility." Still, the universe IS expanding, and Caldwell's calculations are on the money if this phenomenal pace of expansion keeps up. The acceleration would overwhelm gravity as we know it. As Space.com puts it: "Even the nuclear forces that bind things in the subatomic world will cease to be effective."
Pretend the universe is a car. Most theories hold that the universe is expanding at a constant rate. It's a car traveling at 20 miles per hour. Never slower, never faster. But the Big Rip theory holds that the car starts traveling faster and faster and faster--and eventually so fast that it just shreds into thousands of pieces. "The expansion becomes so fast that it literally rips apart all bound objects," Caldwell explained to Space.com. "It rips apart clusters of galaxies. It rips apart stars. It rips apart planets and solar systems. And it eventually rips apart all matter."
If he's right, the stuff of science fiction--wormholes and space travel--would become real science.
We're not alone in this plight. Other galaxies are doing the same thing. In fact, that's one of the signs we're about to be done in. A billion years before our universe shreds, all the other galaxies will have receded so far away that they will no longer be visible. When the Milky Way starts to fly apart, we've got a measly 60 million years left. Just three months before our demise, the planets in our own solar system will fly away from the Sun. Believe it or not, once Earth explodes, we still have about 30 minutes left before atoms and their nuclei break apart. But, as Caldwell dryly says, "It's not quality time."
What happens after that is a mystery. Maybe time ends. Maybe not. But it's still 20 billion years away!