Image: Planetary collisions? Not in our solar
Top 5 REAL Cosmic Doomsday Events
June 8, 2012 -- According to the overactive imaginations of a few doomsayers profiting from people's fear, 2012 will bring all kinds of death and destruction in the form of rampaging planets, killer solar flares and unforeseen asteroid impacts. But the one thing these theories of doom have in common: they're all fabricated. No one has accurately predicted the future. Not even the ancient Mayans prophesized the end of the world on Dec. 21, 2012. Really. For now forget made-up tales of Armageddon, it's the last few months have actually been filled with planetary murder, comet impacts, black hole carnage and stellar death... in other star systems. So sit back, relax, and think yourself lucky that you don't live on CoRoT-2b...
Image credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss
"Dry-Roasted, Irradiated Exoplanet, Anyone?"
Imagine the worst the sun could throw at Earth. Say, a record-breaking bubble of highly charged particles called a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME). Should one of these be hurled at our planet, a worst-case scenario would be some dead satellites (yep, that means no cable TV), magnificent auroral displays and possible widespread power outages. Now, fly over to CoRoT-2b, an exoplanet orbiting a star 880 light-years away. This world doesn't experience "space weather" as we know it -- the unfortunate exoplanet is continuously bathed in powerful X-ray radiation, 100,000 times the amount our planet receives, blasting away its atmosphere at a rate of 5 million tons per second! What's more, due to the close proximity of the world to its star, its presence is actually causing these immensely powerful eruptions. Talk about self-fulfilling doomsday prophesies!
Image credit: ESA/NASA, the AVO project and P
A Black Hole Named Hannibal Lecter
Hmm, why does that black hole look so strange? We should be able to see its brightly glowing accretion disk from here, but something is blocking the light. What... could... it... be... STOP! Don't get too close, that black hole looks a little dubious. Why? It's dressed itself in the corpses of countless half-eaten planets. Not only did it do the grizzly deed of eating those exoplanets' stars -- and, potentially, any poor alien races struggling for survival -- it left the planetary remains like bones littering the entrance to a dragon's cave. But how did the ring of thick planetary debris get there? As you'd expect, the environment surrounding a supermassive black hole in the center of a galaxy is a pretty extreme environment. As star systems (rich with systems of worlds) drift too close, the planetary orbits destabilize and get scattered from their parent stars. Then, in a vast planetary demolition derby, these worlds smash and grind into each other, getting pummeled to dust. That's how many massive black holes are thought to get their dusty coats -- from the massacre of planetary systems. Fortunately, us Earthlings won't have to worry about such a doomsday scenario, our galaxy's black hole is several thousand light-years away.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A Cometary Bombardment
After a sustained artillery bombardment, the target site becomes shrouded in dust and smoke. This military analogy can be scaled up, and in the case of the star system Eta Corvi, its innermost worlds are going through their own kind of cosmic bombardment. The star, located 50 light-years from Earth, has a suspicious cloud of warm dust hanging in a ring around it, much like the dust hanging over a fresh artillery attack. After careful analysis by astronomers, it turns out that this dust has a similar composition to ground-up comets. It is therefore thought that swarms of comets are pulverizing the innermost worlds of Eta Corvi, much like the early history of our own solar system some 4 billion years ago. This era was known as the "Late Heavy Bombardment," and although the huge icy bodies caused global doom to our planet, it is also attributed to transporting the building blocks of life's chemistry to Earth. You see? Every doomsday has a silver lining.
Image credit: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler
It's hard to imagine what it would be like to stray too close to a black hole. Due to all that warping of spacetime it would be like a relativistic punch to the face. There's also that dreaded spaghettification. And the inevitable mass-energy conversion. Ouch. But before being sucked into the mother of all vacuum cleaners, tidal shear will rip everything apart -- stars, planets, little aliens running around, screaming -- much like a supercharged blender. And by chance, astronomers using NASA's Swift space telescope managed to spot this awesome doomsday event unfold right before their telescopic eyes earlier this year. Deep inside a galaxy, 3.9 billion light-years away, a strange brightening was observed. At first, it was assumed to be a gamma-ray burst (when a massive star explodes), but its light signature was strange. It was later determined that the brightening was in fact a star being blended by a supermassive black hole.
Image credit: NASA
The Doomsday that WILL Happen
You know what I said in the first slide about no one being able to predict doomsday? Well, that wasn't entirely true. Scientists know when the
"End of the World" will happen. In 4-5 billion years time, when the sun runs out of the hydrogen fuel that maintains fusion in its core, all kinds of horrid things will happen to our star. A series of events will culminate with huge solar eruptions blasting massive quantities of hot material into space. It will then start to grow. Puffing up into a "red giant," the sun will swallow Mercury, Venus and Earth (possibly even Mars), burning them to ashes. The remaining planets will become unstable and chaos will wreck the solar system. Eventually, a tiny "white dwarf" will remain where our beautiful sun once lived, surrounded by the ashes of a solar system that an ancient civilization used to call "home." Interestingly, like a time capsule showing us what the future holds, astronomers have analyzed distant white dwarf stars to find the ashes of destroyed planetary systems polluting their atmospheres -- remnants of the planets, asteroids, comets and, potentially, life that once populated those star systems.
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