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When 14 Billion Years Just Isn't Enough Time

Some say its glory days are long gone, but the universe has life in it yet. Brand-new types of celestial phenomena will unfold over the coming billions and trillions of years

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Time’s seemingly inexorable march has always provoked interest in, and speculation about, the far future of the cosmos. The usual picture is grim. Five billion years from now the sun will puff itself into a red giant star and swallow the inner solar system before slowly fading to black. But this temporal frame captures only a tiny portion—in fact, an infinitesimal one—of the entire future. As astronomers look ahead, say, “five hundred and seventy-six thousand million years,” as humorist Douglas Adams did in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, they meet a cosmos replete with myriad slow fades to oblivion. By then the accelerating expansion of space will have already carried everything outside our galaxy beyond our view, leaving the night sky ever emptier. Lord Byron captured the prospect of such a celestial wasteland in his 1816 poem “Darkness”: “The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars/Did wander darkling in the eternal space.”

But here’s the good news: oncoming darkness captures only half the story. Star formation has indeed long since passed through its most glorious epoch, but the universe has life in it yet. Strange new beasts will enter the astronomers’ zoo. Outlandish phenomena that now occur rarely, if at all, will become routine. Cosmic conditions favorable to life may, if anything, become even more abundant.

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