The 5 Things About Space That Keep Me Awake At Night

Oct 31 2013

1. The Unstoppable Cycle

The stars helped to make everything around us, and one day a star will take it all away. Our world is composed of elements that were created in the core of dying stars. When a star runs out of fuel, it collapses in on itself before swelling to become a giant star. The spectacular changes in its structure result in it producing the heavy elements that go into making new stars, planets and life itself. As well as providing the raw materials to make life, we also need a star like the Sun to provide warmth and light for us to survive. Eventually the Sun will run out of fuel too, and when that happens it will swell up and engulf everything in its path, including the Earth. Our planet and everything on it will be recycled in a beautifully cyclical process.

2. The Importance or Insignificance of Life

We are only important if we prove that we are unique, or at least original. How would our sense of worth be altered if we discovered that we are sharing the Galaxy with other lifeforms? More than a thousand planets have been discovered outside our solar system. It is estimated that there are billions of planets in our own galaxy. Any one of these planets holds the potential to answer the question of whether or not we are alone. As we get better at finding these planets, we edge ever closer to learning our true place in the cosmos.

3. Distant Wonders

The closer we get to understanding faraway worlds, the further away they seem. Our spacecraft have achieved incredible feats over the last decades. We have put people on the Moon, a mobile laboratory on the surface of Mars and succeeded in sending a manmade object to the edge of our solar system. Despite all of these remarkable achievements, it would take us about 80,000 years to travel from Earth to our nearest neighbouring star, Proxima Centauri, at our current capabilities. Until we figure out a way to overcome the vastness of space we remain in glorious isolation.

4. The Great Unknown

The enduring attraction of space is that so much of it remains a mystery. Even our basic models of the structure of the Universe require us to incorporate dark matter for them to make sense. We call it dark because even though we cannot see it, we think that it might be there. We now know that the Universe is expanding and that some unknown energy might be causing that expansion to accelerate. That energy is called dark energy and along with dark matter is thought to make up more than 95% of the mass-energy of the Universe. Whenever we feel confident about our understanding of the world around us, it is worth remembering that everything that we know is less than 5% of the Universe.

5. What Will Become

There is nothing more final than the end of the Universe, and there are conflicting theories about how things will go down when the time comes. We are confident that the Universe began with The Big Bang. Scientists used to think that eventually the Universe would stop expanding and would one day contract, leading to the idea of The Big Crunch. The existence of dark energy and the accelerated expansion of the Universe instead led to the theory that the Universe might continue to expand indefinitely. If all the heat and energy spread out evenly it would be seen as The Big Freeze. Even more apocalyptic is the idea that the expansion could eventually tear apart galaxies, stars and even the atoms themselves in a fate named The Big Rip. The challenge for us will not be to survive the end of the Universe, but rather to persevere until then.

This guest post was written by Dr. Joseph Roche, the resident astrophysicist at Science Gallery Dublin. He can be found despairingly tweeting about the end of everything @joeboating.

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