No matter how the world ends, scientists feel the need to use the (horribly understated) word “big” to describe it. In this theory, an unseen force called “dark energy” is causing the accelerating expansion of the universe that we’ve observed. Eventually, the acceleration speeds up so much that, like the Enterprise at warp factor nine, it can’t take any more and rips itself apart into nothingness.
The scariest part of this theory is that, while most of these scenarios take place long after the stars have burned out and nothing is left anyway, the Big Rip is scheduled to happen (at the earliest estimate) in another 16 billion years. At this phase in the universe’s existence, planets (and theoretically life) will still exist.
And this universe-wide cataclysm could burn them alive, tear them apart, or feed them to the space lions that live between universes. It’s anyone’s guess. But it’s sure to be a far more violent death than the slow heat death most people were expecting.
We could potentially know for sure in the next 20 years—we have a satellite (the Planck satellite) surveying space for the patterns in background radiation that the prominent theories on the origin of the universe predict. It’s a long process, but once we have that radiation pattern, we could have a better understanding of how our universe began—and how it will end.