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Phantom Energy and the Big Rip

Weird stuff called dark energy could push the universe toward a runaway expansion and ultimate demise about 21 billion years from now.

Imagine the universe being torn to shreds: Stars and galaxies tear away from each other. Earth escapes from the sun. Tiny molecules pop apart with explosive force.

A spiral galaxy.

A spiral galaxy.

Space Telescope Science Institute

New analyses show that the world could end in just such a doomsday scenario. Scientists are calling it the Big Rip. The good news: We are safe for another 21 billion years or so.

The key culprit is dark energy, also known as phantom energy, a mysterious and invisible substance that supposedly fills the universe. One idea is that dark energy works against the ordinarily inward pull of gravity to push things apart. Dark energy might be the force responsible for recent evidence that the universe is expanding at an ever-increasing rate.

Illustration of phantom energy releasing Earth (blue) and other planets from the sun (yellow) and tearing apart each body, 60 million years after the Milky Way would have disintegrated.

Illustration of phantom energy releasing Earth (blue) and other planets from the sun (yellow) and tearing apart each body, 60 million years after the Milky Way would have disintegrated.

Caldwell

Now, analyses by Robert Caldwell of Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and his colleagues, suggest that dark energy will accumulate over time, pushing the universe toward a runaway expansion and ultimate demise at age 35 billion years, 21 billion years from now.

The Milky Way would be destroyed about 60 million years before the end of time. A few months before the Big Rip, Earth would float away from the sun's pull. With 30 minutes to go, Earth itself would fall apart. And at the very end, atoms would break up.

Talk about going out with a bang!—E. Sohn

Going Deeper:

Cowen, Ron. 2003. Cosmic doomsday scenario: Phantom energy would trigger the Big Rip. Science News 163(March 8):148. Available at http://www.sciencenews.org/20030308/fob3.asp .

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