The Universe has been expanding since the Big Bang, some 13.8 billion years ago but that could change “remarkably” quickly with the expansion of space-time going into reverse and heading for a Big Crunch… and maybe a new Big Bang.
Before you start packing up your belongings and working out how to migrate to a new Universe, when scientists measure these things they tend to do it on a scale of millions of years – so there’s no need to ask the local supermarket if they’ve got any spare cardboard boxes just yet.
According to new research published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “the end of expansion could occur surprisingly soon,” but soon means “within the next 65 million years”.
"Going back in time 65 million years, that's when the Chicxulub asteroid hit the Earth and eliminated the dinosaurs," researcher Paul Steinhardt, told Live Science.
"On a cosmic scale, 65 million years is remarkably short.”
Once the expansion ends, says the paper from Steinhardt and fellow-researchers Andrei Cosmin, Anna Ijjas, the Universe will begin to contract again.
Eventually, with all the matter and energy in the Universe would be contained in a tiny volume.
Every star we can see in the night sky would be squashed into a supermassive black hole with an event horizon billions of light-years across.
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When this will all happen, and if it will happen at all, depends on the measurement of a force that scientists only dimly understand.
Dark Energy is the name given to a mysterious force that's causing the rate of expansion of the universe to accelerate over time, rather than to slow down.
But according to Steinhardt, the Director of the Princeton Centre for Theoretical Science at Princeton University in New Jersey, Dark Energy is not the force scientists once believed but an actual substance that he calls “Quintessence”.
This elusive substance could be decaying, weakening the push for the Universe’s expansion and giving way to gravity which will over time pull it back into an incredibly dense, impossibly hot singularity.
Some theories predict that time could even start running backwards as the Universe contracts.
Although it must be stressed that those predictions, like the scientists’ forecast of a collapsing Universe, are likely to remain purely theoretical long after Mankind has gone the way of the Dinosaurs.
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