NASA’s Roman Mission Might Tell Us if the Universe Will Tear Itself Apart in the Future

The concept of accelerating expansion does get you wondering just how much it can accelerate. Theorists think there still might be a chance of a big crunch, a steady-as-she-goes expansion or a big rip. Or maybe just a little rip?

NASA’s Nancy Gracy Roman Space Telescope won’t launch until 2027, and it won’t start operating until some time after that. But that isn’t stopping excited scientists from dreaming about their new toy and all it will do. Who can blame them?

A new study examines the Roman Space Telescope’s power in detail to see if it can help us answer one of our most significant questions about the Universe. The question?

Will the Universe keep expanding and tear itself apart in a Big Rip?

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Big Bang Theory: Evolution of Our Universe

Illustration of the Big Bang Theory
The Big Bang Theory: A history of the Universe starting from a singularity and expanding ever since. Credit:

How was our Universe created? How did it come to be the seemingly infinite place we know of today? And what will become of it, ages from now? These are the questions that have been puzzling philosophers and scholars since the beginning the time, and led to some pretty wild and interesting theories. Today, the consensus among scientists, astronomers and cosmologists is that the Universe as we know it was created in a massive explosion that not only created the majority of matter, but the physical laws that govern our ever-expanding cosmos. This is known as The Big Bang Theory.

For almost a century, the term has been bandied about by scholars and non-scholars alike. This should come as no surprise, seeing as how it is the most accepted theory of our origins. But what exactly does it mean? How was our Universe conceived in a massive explosion, what proof is there of this, and what does the theory say about the long-term projections for our Universe?

The basics of the Big Bang theory are fairly simple. In short, the Big Bang hypothesis states that all of the current and past matter in the Universe came into existence at the same time, roughly 13.8 billion years ago. At this time, all matter was compacted into a very small ball with infinite density and intense heat called a Singularity. Suddenly, the Singularity began expanding, and the universe as we know it began.

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What Is The Big Rip?

What Is The Big Rip?

Dr. Thad Szabo is a professor of physics and astronomy at Cerritos College. He’s also a regular contributor to many of our projects, like the Virtual Star Party and the Weekly Space Hangout. Thad has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things space, so we got him to explain a few fascinating concepts.

In this video, Thad explains the strange mystery of dark energy, and the even stranger idea of the Big Rip.

What is the ‘Big Rip?’

If we look at the expansion of the universe, at first it was thought that, as things are expanding while objects have mass, the mass is going to be attracted to other mass, and that should slow the expansion. Then, in the late 1990’s, you have the supernova surveys that are looking deeper into space than we’ve ever looked before, and measuring distances accurately to greater distances than we’ve ever seen before. Something really surprising came out, and that was what we’ll now use “dark energy” now to explain, and that is that the acceleration is not actually slowing down – it’s not even stopped. It’s actually getting faster, and if you look at the most distant objects, they’re actually moving away from us and the acceleration is increasing the acceleration of expansion. This is actually a huge result.

One of the ideas of trying to explain it is to use the “cosmological constant,” which is something that Einstein actually introduced to his field equations to try to keep the universe the same size. He didn’t like the idea of a universe changing, so he just kind of cooked up this term and threw it into the equations to say, alright, well if it isn’t supposed to expand or contract, if I make this little mathematical adjustment, it stays the same size.

Hubble comes along about ten years later, and is observing galaxies and measuring their red shifts and their distances, and says wait a minute – no the universe is expanding. And actually we should really credit that to Georges Lemaître, who was able to interpret Hubble’s data to come up with the idea of what we now call the Big Bang.

So, the expansion’s happening – wait, it’s getting faster. And now the attempt is to try to understand how dark energy works. Right now, most of the evidence points to this idea that the expansion will continue in the space between galaxies. That the forces of gravity, and especially magnetism and the strong nuclear force that holds protons and neutrons together in the center of an atom, would be strong enough that dark energy is never going to be able to pull those objects apart.

However, there’s a possibility that it doesn’t work like that. There’s actually a little bit of experimental evidence right now that, although it’s not well-established, that there’s a little bit of a bias with certain experiments that dark energy may get stronger over time. And, if it does so, the distances won’t matter – that any object will be pulled apart. So first, you will see all galaxies recede from each other, as space starts to grow bigger and bigger, faster and faster. Then the galaxies will start to be pulled apart. Then star systems, then planets from their stars, then stars themselves, and then other objects that would typically be held together by the much stronger forces, the electromagnetic force objects held by that will be pulled apart, and then eventually, nuclei in atoms.

So if dark energy behaves so that it gets stronger and stronger over time, it will eventually overcome everything, and you’ll have a universe with nothing left. That’s the ‘Big Rip’ – if dark energy gets stronger and stronger over time, it will eventually overcome any forces of attraction, and then everything is torn apart.

You can find more information from Dr. Thad Szabo at his YouTube channel.

Is Everything in the Universe Expanding?

Is Everything in the Universe Expanding?

The Universe is expanding. Distant galaxies are moving away from us in all directions. It’s natural to wonder, is everything expanding? Is the Milky Way expanding? What about the Solar System, or even objects here on Earth. Are atoms expanding?

Nope. The only thing expanding is space itself. Imagine the Universe as loaf of raisin bread rising in the oven. As the bread bakes, it’s stretching in all directions – that’s space. But the raisins aren’t growing, they’re just getting carried away from each other as there’s more bread expanding between them.

Space is expanding from the Big Bang and the acceleration of dark energy. But the objects embedded in space, like planets, stars, and galaxies stay exactly the same size. As space expands, it carries galaxies away from each other. From our perspective, we see galaxies moving away in every direction. The further galaxies are, the faster they’re moving.

There are a few exceptions. The Andromeda Galaxy is actually moving towards the Milky Way, and will collide with us in about 4 billion years.In this case, the pull of gravity between the Milky Way and Andromeda is so strong that it overcomes the expansion of the Universe on a local level.

Within the Milky Way, gravity holds the stars together, and same with the Solar System. The nuclear force holding atoms together is stronger than this expansion at a local scale. Is this the way it will always be? Maybe. Maybe not.

A few decades ago, astronomers thought that the Universe was expanding because of momentum left over from the Big Bang. But with the discovery of dark energy in 1998, astronomers realized there was a new possibility for the future of the Universe. Perhaps this accelerating dark energy might be increasing over time.

In billions years from now, the expansive force might overcome the gravity that holds galaxies together. Eventually it would become so strong that star systems, planets and eventually matter itself could get torn apart.This is a future for the Universe known as the Big Rip. And if it’s true, then the space between stars, planets and even atoms will expand in the far future.

This image shows the Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2012, an improved version of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image featuring additional observation time. The new data have revealed for the first time a population of distant galaxies at redshifts between 9 and 12, including the most distant object observed to date. These galaxies will require confirmation using spectroscopy by the forthcoming NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope before they are considered to be fully confirmed.
The space between the galaxies is expanding. Credit: NASA/HST

Is this going to happen? Astronomers don’t know. Their best observations so far can’t rule it out, or confirm it. And so, future observations and space missions will try to calculate the rate of dark energy’s expansion.

So no, matter on a local level isn’t expanding. The spaces between planets and stars isn’t growing. Only the distances between galaxies which aren’t gravitationally bound to each other is increasing. Because space itself is expanding.

Astronomy Without A Telescope – Big Rips And Little Rips

The concept of accelerating expansion does get you wondering just how much it can accelerate. Theorists think there still might be a chance of a big crunch, a steady-as-she-goes expansion or a big rip. Or maybe just a little rip?


One of a number of seemingly implausible features of dark energy is that its density is assumed to be constant over time. So, even though the universe expands over time, dark energy does not become diluted, unlike the rest of the contents of the universe.

As the universe expands, it seems that more dark energy appears out of nowhere to sustain the constant dark energy density of the universe. So, as times goes by, dark energy will become an increasingly dominant proportion of the observable universe – remembering that it is already estimated as being 73% of it.

An easy solution to this is to say that dark energy is a feature inherent in the fabric of space-time, so that as the universe expands and the expanse of space-time increases, so dark energy increases and its density remains constant. And this is fine, as long as we then acknowledge that it isn’t really energy – since our otherwise highly reliable three laws of thermodynamics don’t obviously permit energy to behave in such ways.

An easy solution to explain the uniform acceleration of the universe’s expansion is to propose that dark energy has the feature of negative pressure – where negative pressure is a feature inherent in expansion.

Applying this arcane logic to observation, the observed apparent flatness of the universe’s geometry suggests that the ratio of dark energy pressure to dark energy density is approximately 1, or more correctly -1, since we are dealing with a negative pressure. This relationship is known as the equation of state for dark energy.

In speculating about what might happen in the universe’s future, an easy solution is to assume that dark energy is just whatever it is – and that this ratio of pressure to density will be sustained at -1 indefinitely, whatever the heck that means.

But cosmologists are rarely happy to just leave things there and have speculated on what might happen if the equation of state does not stay at -1.

Three scenarios for a future driven by dark energy - its density declines over time, it stays the same or its density increases, tearing the contents of the universe to bits. If you are of the view that dark energy is just a mathematical artifact that grows as the expanse of space-time increases - then the cosmological constant option is for you.

If dark energy density decreased over time, the acceleration rate of universal expansion would decline and potentially cease if the pressure/density ratio reached -1/3. On the other hand, if dark energy density increased and the pressure/density ratio dropped below -1 (that is, towards -2, or -3 etc), then you get phantom energy scenarios. Phantom energy is a dark energy which has its density increasing over time. And let’s pause here to remember that the Phantom (ghost who walks) is a fictional character.

Anyhow, as the universe expands and we allow phantom energy density to increase, it potentially approaches infinite within a finite period of time, causing a Big Rip, as the universe becomes infinite in scale and all bound structures, all the way down to subatomic particles, are torn apart. At a pressure/density ratio of just -1.5, this scenario could unfold over a mere 22 billion years.

Frampton et al propose an alternative Little Rip scenario, where the pressure/density ratio is variable over time so that bound structures are still torn apart but the universe does not become infinite in scale.

This might support a cyclic universe model – since it gets you around problems with entropy. A hypothetical Big Bang – Big Crunch cyclic universe has an entropy problem since free energy is lost as everything becomes gravitationally bound – so that you just end up with one huge black hole at the end of the Crunch.

A Little Rip potentially gives you an entropy reboot, since everything is split apart and so can progress from scratch through the long process of being gravitationally bound all over again – generating new stars and galaxies in the process.

Anyhow, Sunday morning – time for a Big Brunch.

Further reading: Frampton et al. The Little Rip.

The Big Crunch: The End of Our Universe?

The Big Crunch is one of the scenarios predicted by scientists in which the Universe may end. Just like many others, it is based on Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. That is, if the Big Bang describes how the Universe most possibly began, the Big Crunch describes how it will end as a consequence of that beginning.

It tells us that the Universe’s expansion, which is due to the Big Bang, will not continue forever. Instead, at a certain point in time, it will stop expanding and collapse into itself, pulling everything with it until it eventually turns into the biggest black hole ever. Well, we all know how everything is squeezed when in that hole. Hence the name Big Crunch.

For scientists to predict with certainty the possibility of a Big Crunch, they will have to determine certain properties of the Universe. One of them is its density. It is believed that if the density is larger than a certain value, known as the critical density, an eventual collapse is highly possible.

You see, initially, scientists believed that there were only two factors that greatly influenced this expansion: the gravitational force of attraction between all the galaxies (which is proportional to the density) and their outward momentum due to the Big Bang.

Now, just like any body that goes against gravity, e.g. when you throw something up, that body will eventually give in and come back down for as long as there is no other force pushing it up.

Thus, that the gravitational forces will win in the end, once seemed like a logical prediction. But that was until scientists discovered that the Universe was actually increasing its rate of expansion at regions farthest from us.

To explain this phenomena, scientists had to assume the presence of an unknown entity, which they dubbed ‘dark energy’. It is widely believed that this entity is pushing all galaxies farther apart. With dark energy, and what little is known about it, in the picture, there seems to be little room for the possibility of a Big Crunch.

Right now, measurements made by NASA’s Chandra X-ray observatory indicate that the strength of dark energy in the University is constant. Just for added information, an increasing dark energy strength would have supported the possibility of a Big Rip, another universe ending that predicted everything (including atoms) to be ripped apart.

Even with an unchanging dark energy strength, an ever expanding universe is still the most likely scenario. So unless data that contradicts these properties are collected, the Big Crunch will have to remain as a less favored theory.

Articles on the big crunch are so hot. It’s a good thing we’ve got a nice collection of them here in Universe Today. Here are two of them:

Here are links from NASA about the big crunch:

Tired eyes? Let your ears help you learn for a change. Here are some episodes from Astronomy Cast that just might suit your taste: