This article was contributed by David Baumgartner as part of a local series on astronomy.
You and your existence, along with everything else we know of was born, lives its life, and dies, and the universe is no exception. We have a general idea on how long different species live here on Earth just due to past experience. Humans live an average of 80 years or so. I’m close to that right now, so I might want to adjust that figure upward somewhat. Dogs live from 10 to 15 years depending on what breed they are, hamsters five years, some male spiders live to the day they first breed, and of course my sweet grandmother is still going on at 103 years young, I think she is still alive. As you can see we are very close. But what about the vast universe? Exactly how and when its death will occur, if at all, remains one of the greatest mysteries in cosmology. (Now that’s not cosmetology, as what my daughter is in.) And you must agree that the more you get into astronomy the more you feel like you are being left behind. And that’s just not us lay people, some astronomers feel the same way.
So scientists have categorized cosmic time into five different eras—also referred to as the five ages of the universe—to help us understand maybe a little bit better what’s going on up there. The first time period is called the Primordial Era; this is when we had the Big Bang kicking off the beginning of the cosmos. The next era, which we are currently in, is known as the Stelliferous Era; not to be confused with the popular movie “Rocky,” wait for it…This era is when matter organized into stars, planets, nebulae, and galaxies. All happening 1 million to 100 trilliion years after the Big Bang. Once all stars exhaust their hydrogen fuel and go dark, we will have entered into the Degenerate Era; this era is thought to take place between 1 quadrillion to 1 duo decillion years after the big Bang. (You may want to look up some of these words, as I did.) It will contain stellar remnants such as black holes, white dwarfs, brown dwarfs, and neutron stars. As time marches on the universe will continue to cool and darken; eventually, life and matter as we understand it will likely come to an end.
And once all the stars have gone away, only black holes will remain, dominating what is left of the universe. So this brings us to the Black Hole Era, which is predicted to last for about 10 duo decillion to 1 googol years after the big bang. Aren’t you glad you looked those words up now? Imagine a universe with no bright stars, no planets, and no life whatsoever—this is the Black Hole Era. Very little heat will linger in the universe at this time. But even these monster will not last forever. They could last for more than 1 googol years, and that is a 1 followed by 100 zeros.
Once all the black holes have dissipated and there is nothing left, it is called the Dark Era. What imaginations these scientist have. Now that the universe has cooled down most likely it will continue to expand and spread out. But some scientists still think that the next step could be the Big Crunch, that is that everything comes crashing back on itself with another Big Bang, starting all over with a fresh universe made up of the ashes of our own universe.
None of these timetables are etched in stone. Most of this story is based on ideas that are impossible to test to see if we are close to being correct, or not!
And now you know the rest of the story.
Parts of information here was derived from the Astronomy Magazine article “A cold lonely death” by Doug Adler.
Things to look for in February:
Feb. 3: Moon at perigee (229,980 miles from Earth)
Feb. 4: Last quarter Moon
Feb. 10: Moon passes 3° south of Saturn
Feb. 10: Moon passes 3° south of Venus
Feb. 11: Venus passes 0.4° south of Jupiter
Feb. 11: New Moon
Feb. 13: Moon passes 3° south of Neptune
Feb. 13: Mercury passes 4° north of Jupiter