With the Universe approaching 13.8 billion years old, we explain how the death of our universe will unfold.
The Death of our Sun
At the moment the Sun is in the middle of its life, fusing hydrogen into helium at a rate of around 600 million tonnes every second. It will continue to do this for another five billion years; but eventually, perhaps fittingly given the grandeur and beauty it has nurtured in its empire, it won’t simply fade away. As the stores of hydrogen run dry, the Sun’s core will collapse and momentarily, as helium begins to fuse into oxygen and carbon, a last release of energy will cause its outer layers to expand. Imperceptibly at first, the extra heat of the Sun will extend towards us as its diameter increases by around 250 times. The fiery surface of our star will move beyond Mercury, towards Venus and onwards to our fragile world.
Death of the Earth
The effects on our planet will be as catastrophic as they are certain. Gradually the Earth will become hotter. In the distant future, if any of our descendants still remain, someone will experience the last perfect day on Earth. As the surface of the Sun encroaches, our oceans will boil away, the molecules in our atmosphere will be agitated off into space, and the memory of life on Earth will fade into someone’s history; or perhaps no one’s history if we have steadfastly remained at home.
Red Giant phase
Long after life has disappeared, the Sun will fill the horizon; it may extend beyond Earth itself. This swollen stage in a stars life is known as the red giant phase, marked by the final release of energy and the beginning of a long, long decline. In six billion years’ time, in a most beautiful display of light and colour, our sun will shed its outer layers into space to form a planetary nebula. We unfold in the final breath of stars – on someone else’s sun? Written across the night sky in filamentary patches of colour are the echoes of our future.
White Dwarf phase
If in the far future, somewhere in the Universe, astronomers on a world not yet formed gaze through a telescope at our planetary nebula and reflect on its beauty, they may glimpse at its heart a faintly glowing ember; all that remains of a star we once thought of as a magnificent. She will be smaller than the size of Earth, less than a millionth of her current volume and a fraction of her brightness. Our sun will have become a white dwarf – the destiny of almost all the stars in our galaxy – a fading, dense remnant momentarily masked by a colourful cloud.
If our planet survives, little more than a scorched and barren rock will remain, silhouetted darkly against the fading embers of a star.
Our brightest star
Sirius, the brightest star in our sky, sits at just over eight light years away, which makes it one of our nearest neighbours. It is so bright that on occasion it can be observed during bright twilight, partly because of its proximity but also because it is twice as big as our sun and twenty-five times as bright. It is therefore not surprising that observations of Sirius have been recorded in the oldest of astronomical records.
For thousands of years we looked up at this beacon and assumed it was a single star, but in 1862 American astronomer Alvan Graham Clark observed a sister star Sirius’s companion because, as the photograph taken by the Hubble Space Telescope reveals, it is so much dimmer than its sibling. Shining faintly in the lower left hand corner, the small dot of light is an image of the white dwarf star Sirius B. This is one of the larger white dwarf stars discovered by astronomers, with a mass similar to our sun that is packed into a sphere the size of Earth. With no fuel left to burn, white dwarfs like Sirius B furnaces. Like most white dwarfs, Sirius B is made packed tightly with a density a million times that of a younger, living star. This is the future of our star; a vision of the Sun’s death. Slowly cooling in the freezing temperatures of deep space, it is estimated that our sun will reach this phase in around 6 billion years’ time. From Earth, if indeed there is an Earth at that time, our Sun will shine no brighter than a full moon on a clear night.
Death must come to all stars. One day every light in the sky will fade and the cosmos will be plunged into eternal night. This is the most profound consequence of the arrow of time; this structured Universe that we inhabit alongside all its wonders – the stars, the planets and the galaxies – cannot last forever. As we move through the age of stars will live and die. Eventually, though, there will be only one type of star that will remain to illuminate the Universe in its old age.