Could humans survive a cosmic apocalypse?

Contributed by
Dec 31, 2017, 1:59 PM EST (Updated)

Entropy theoretically dooms the universe to a vast grave in which even the energy from black holes may not survive, but—again theoretically—our species could possibly beat that.

Before you spiral into an existential crisis, NBC Mach agrees that the laws of physics say that the annihilation of our planet, our solar system, and eventually the entire universe is inevitable. Humans will only survive on Earth for another 1.5 billion years. After that, the sun will enter its death throes and skyrocket in temperature, boiling the oceans and scorching the rest of the planet. But. The frozen desert of Mars is suddenly going to be a vacation destination by comparison for the next 5 billion years. Just in case we haven’t realized the dreams of Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk and long since become an interplanetary species by then, we’d better.

“The habitable zone is not static in time or space, and its boundaries migrate outward at a rate proportional to the increase in luminosity of a star undergoing stellar evolution, possibly including or excluding planets over the course of the star's main sequence lifetime,” said NASA Postdoctoral Program Astrobiology Fellow Andrew J. Rushby and colleagues in a study published in the journal Astrobiology.

Meaning, Earth is not always going to be a biological utopia for everything that breathes.


Which galaxy (or galaxies) will the species formerly known as Earthlings end up populating in the distant future? Credit: NASA

Just in case you can’t imagine the entire population of Earthlings turning into Martians, astronomers Ramses Ramirez and Lisa Kaltenegger of Cornell University have backed that up with science. When the sun burns up its hydrogen fuel and blows up into a red giant feeding off helium in about 7.5 billion years, its expansion will push the habitable zone outward to Mars and eventually beyond the Red Planet to melt the icy orbs that are Jovian and Saturnian satellites Enceladus and Titan, where we could hang out for another couple hundred million years.

So where do we go after the sun’s killer radiation makes even those water worlds intolerable? Even Pluto will be hostile 8 billion years from now. We could find ourselves on an interstellar ship like the Enterprise or the Voyager, flying from galaxy to galaxy in search of a planet to land on thousands and even millions of light-years away. Stars like our sun shine for tens of millions of years before they start morphing into red giants, but there are so many of them scattered across space that we could just get on board our starship and zoom over to another planet when one becomes uninhabitable. Something like Federation space could become a thing.

What about when all those stars finally experience burnout? We could touch down on planets that orbit red dwarfs until those stars also turn off 15 trillion years from now, but then we will exist in a vast lightless chasm. Thank dark energy for that.

Human life could continue even after the universe goes dark. Stephen Hawking believes that black holes radiate energy in the process of Hawking Radiation, which could make us able to harvest that energy for survival, but even black holes will fade to black after the protons and neutrons that make up everything in the universe disintegrate. After that, we might go into some Asimovian state of existence in which our consciousness is downloaded to computers, which gives new meaning to the already scary truth that the internet never forgets.


We might have a view of a red dwarf sunset someday after the sun and other sun-like stars burn out. Credit: NASA

But wait again. Theoretical physics can only reach so far as the human brain. There is a chance that strange phenomena in space could defy entropy altogether if cosmic cycles keep repeating in multiple Big Bangs. The force of such an explosion could wipe us out anyway, but by then, super-advanced science might even have an answer for that.

(via NBC Mach)


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