NASA: Those wonderful eggheads with their rockets and their math and their math-rockets — they’ve got this whole space thing under control. Or so we like to think. In reality, even Earth’s best and brightest have scores of questions whose terrible answers could doom us all. Well … probably not. But that doesn’t stop our fevered imaginations from running wildly out of control whenever we consider these mysteries …
#5. Is There An Extra Planet Hiding In Our Solar System?
Imagine a messy clump not unlike the hair clogging your sink, only on a celestial scale. This wad of soggy detritus sits way out in the Kuiper belt, where Pluto and other small, icy bodies hang out. Also, the mysterious clump in question consists of said icy objects and not actual hair. This would be a very different entry otherwise.
The clump in space, not your sink. We have no idea what’s in your sink, you animal.
Scientists weren’t quite sure what caused this, so they started running computer simulations of different things that might make them clump in the observed way. In January 2016, they published a paper presenting a potential cause for the phenomenon: a hitherto undiscovered giant of a planet, 10 times the size of Earth, skulking all but silently about the edges of our solar system like a cosmic Hodor.
Arguments for and against the theory are ongoing and just so, so dorky — but computer simulations certainly do support the idea that a large planet could be causing these groupings to occur. So we might have a whole new planet! Your outdated knee-jerk answer of “nine” when somebody asks how many planets are in our solar system may once again be correct!
As for everyone who grew up with eight planets: Suck it.
How It Could Destroy Us:
If there’s a previously unknown ninth planet, Earth could be looking at a surprise centaur invasion.
Disappointingly, not this kind.
Space centaurs are giant comets up to 62 miles across. They tend to hang out in the Kuiper belt region. This means they’re not an immediate danger by default but can be bumped into the inner solar system when sufficiently large objects pass by. Objects like … the theorized ninth planet. Crap.
“Yeah, bet you wish you’d stuck with me now, don’tcha?”
In the unlikely event that Bruce Willis fails to stop it, a centaur getting too close to Earth would wreak havoc. Its trip from outer to inner space and through our atmosphere would likely reduce its size significantly, but the disintegration would loose enough dust to reduce our sunlight to the level of moonlight. Of course, the dust would eventually clear up … after 100,000 years. And that’s assuming that what remains of the centaur doesn’t then impact Earth and level humanity. Yes, “perpetual Goth phase” is the best possible outcome of that particular disaster scenario.
#4. Where Are All The Nearby Rogue Planets (And Where Are They Headed)?
Planets in our solar system are basically gargantuan tetherballs swinging at a fixed distance around the sun. If you enjoy living, you should be very thankful for that: The sweet, steady spot that Earth has found in its orbit keeps us alive, unfrozen, unburned, and unmaimed by another planet with an orbit at odds with ours. But not every planet out there is fortunate enough to have a star to orbit. Rogue planets are the hobos of the universe, wandering unfettered across galaxies and occasionally crashing a solar system to take a dump in the proverbial sink.
“Y’all got any … *burp* … any moonshine?”
How They Could Destroy Us:
Remember that cozy orbit Earth has? If one of these loner rogue planets came into our neighborhood, it would likely screw up our good thing. We’re not even talking about a head-on collision: A sufficiently large rogue planet’s gravitational pull during a flyby could be enough to make our orbit slightly more elliptical. This would mean shorter, more intense summers as we got closer to the sun, followed by longer, colder winters. Even if the temperatures of the hot and cold season remained tolerable, this would very likely decrease our food supply enough to cause human extinction, leading to the inevitable rise of the White Walkers.
#3. When And Where Will Solar Flares Strike?
Solar flares are bursts of heat, electricity, and radiation that can be up to 10 times the size of our planet. They’re unleashed from the hellish fury of the Sun’s solar storms roughly once every decade.
“Sorry for the mix-up; looks like instead you got tickets to THE GUN SHOW.”
Luckily, despite what Nicolas Cage would have us believe, solar flares aren’t going to bombard the world with fiery hellstorms. Sure, they can screw with our machinery some, and it’s a super bad idea to be in space and unprotected by the atmosphere when one comes knocking, but they’re not going to destroy us …
How They Could Destroy Us:
… just our way of life. Because a bad enough flare could blast us right back to the 1930s.
And not in a cool “Superman spinning the Earth backwards” kind of way.
What we think of as solar flares are actually two different eruptions: the flares themselves, which are basically blasts of light and high-energy particles, and coronal mass ejections, which are giant clouds of actual solar matter. They travel behind the flare like a bullet following the flash of a muzzle. The flares just hassle radio waves in some parts of the atmosphere, while the CMEs dig down to Earth’s magnetic field, causing magnificent auroras and nasty disruptions to a variety of human technologies; GPS coordinates go astray, high-frequency radio waves are garbled, and, oh yeah, the magnetic influx creates electrical currents that can overload entire utility grids.
This has actually happened once: In 1859, the CME known as the Carrington Event disrupted the telegraph system and other electrical tech of the era. This wasn’t a huge deal back then, but should this happen today, everything would be screwed: planes, spacecraft, power grids, and even satellites. As of 2013, there were 1,071 operational satellites out there, used for television, navigation, telephones, business, finance, weather, idly browsing not safe for work content on your phone … the list is as endless as it is vulnerable.
Luckily, there are precautions: We can shut down satellites, alert the airlines, protect our power grids against surges.
“Night gathers, and now my watch begins …”
But knowing when to take said precautions might be a problem. Although space weather centers constantly monitor the sun, we’re far, far worse at predicting solar flares than we should be. A quick glance at the website of the NASA-backed Solar Dynamics Observatory will reveal a worrying abundance of phrases like “we still do not fully understand” and “nor can we reliably predict.” We don’t know about you, but to us, that sure sounds like the polite, scientific way of saying “Start panicking now, so you have a head start when the time for panic actually comes.”
#2. What Is Causing The Universe To Accelerate?
We know that there is some kind of energy out there in “empty” space, but that’s about all we know. Theorists calculate how much energy exists in a chunk of empty space, then astronomers use real-world phenomena to do those same calculations, and the two should match up. Yet the difference between the results is 10 to the 121st power. That’s a number with 121 zeros behind it. Dang. We haven’t seen that many zeroes in one place since our high school reunion.
It’s one of the largest practical numbers in science, right behind the mass of your mom.
That vast difference between theory and reality that we have no idea how to account for? That’s dark energy. Some say it’s the polar opposite force for gravity. Others claim it’s a scalar field similar to the Higgs field (of the Boson fame). Others still suggest it’s a giant, constant sea of “vacuum energy.” Then everyone gets a headache and goes to bed early, because for all we know, it could also be wizards. But whatever the truth, “dark energy” appears to be actually speeding up the expansion of the universe.
Physicists and astrophysicists labeled dark energy the central problem of physics and the greatest mystery in all of science. And somehow this unknown force is making the universe expand. And expansion is good. Better than subtraction, anyway. R-right?
Too many bloody stars around here as it is.
How It Could Destroy Us:
Remember that theory about anti-gravity? If it’s true, dark energy is a force that’s actively working to pull the universe apart. According to NASA, something like that may very well be happening as you read this. It can come in one of two ways: The Big Rip, where everything tears away from everything, or a Big Crunch that pulls all matter together like a giant garbage compactor. Some sources also provide a lighter Option C, where nothing gets annihilated but everything just … freezes.
Luckily, these doomsday scenarios are almost certainly billions of years away. Here’s an estimated timeline of the Big Rip scenario:
So, you know, plan ahead.
Of course, since we’ve already told you that we basically have no idea what’s happening out there, this handy infographic isn’t exactly comforting. That’s why we’re preparing for Wizardpocalypse, and you should too. Now, we’ve got some protective crystals we want to show you, and we know that you’ll find them high quality and reasonably priced. This here is the Fireball Protection crys-
#1. When Will WR 104 Go Supernova?
In the constellation Sagittarius, 8,000 light years from us, there lies an interesting pair of stars known as WR 104. They orbit each other, resulting in a neat pinwheel formation.
Which will make you feel better when it destroys us all.
One of these two stars is a particularly unstable type known as a Wolf-Rayet. It also just so happens to be running on fumes. According to scientists, it is safe to say that it will inevitably go supernova.
How It Could Destroy Us:
When a Wolf-Rayet goes out, it goes out with a terrifyingly literal bang.
We’ve told you about gamma ray bursts, the galactic death rays the universe fires about like a drunken Texan every once in a while. Should one come our way, it would boil away our ozone layer and bombard our planet with lethal amounts of UV radiation. When a Wolf-Rayet goes supernova, we’re in the direct path of its giant space death ray. Though it probably won’t straight-up blast us to pieces, Death Star style. That would be too merciful: Instead, it would merely destroy up to half of our ozone layer, leaving us with mass extinctions and a broken food chain, all washed down with a nice torrent of acid rain and a side order of global cooling. Oh, and we’d also be pelted with cosmic rays, netting every living thing in the burst’s path a hefty dose of radiation sickness.
So less getting Fantastic Four powers, and more feeling like you watched their movies.
“But why should we care what happens at some far-flung point in the distant, distant future?” you might think. “The star’s still there, so clearly it hasn’t gone supernova yet. If it’s 8,000 light years away, we got at least 8,000 years left. No matter how much yoga I do, I won’t live to be 8,000, so forget about it!”
Wow, you sound like a jerk. But you’re also forgetting something: If a star is 8,000 light years away, what we see of it is already 8,000-year-old news. For all we know, WR 104 might have gone supernova 7,999 years and 364 days ago, and its death beam hits tomorrow. On the one hand, the odds of that are infinitesimally low, but on the other hand AHHHHH!
For more ways we’re probably doomed, check out 5 Ways The World Could End (You’d Never See Coming) and 7 Horrible Ways The Universe Can Destroy Us Without Warning.