Universe Could Start Shrinking in Just 100 Million Years

U.S. scientists have published a new research paper outlining the possibility that the universe could, relatively shortly, begin to shrink towards its demise and eventual rebirth.

The origins and the end of the universe have tantalized scientists for centuries and remain some of the biggest questions in physics. Today the prevailing theory is that the universe started with the Big Bang—a vast expansion of everything from a single point that kept on growing and cooling into what the universe is today.

There is some disagreement regarding how the universe will end, however. There are a number of theories around, including: "The Big Rip," which theorizes that the universe will keep growing faster and faster until the distances between even individual particles become infinite; "The Big Freeze," in which the universe continues to expand forever and all matter cools down to absolute zero; and the "Big Crunch" or "Big Bounce," in which the universe stops expanding, starts contracting, and eventually collapses into a single point before exploding once again.

Big Bang
The Big Bang is the prevailing theory of how the universe began. It is not certain how it will end. However, U.S. scientists have published a new research paper outlining the possibility that the universe could begin to contract, leading to its demise and potential rebirth. Pictured, a stock illustration depicting a cosmic explosion. coffeekai/Getty

In this latter scenario, the end of the universe and the start of the universe are essentially the same thing.

Current measurements of the universe suggest that we appear to be headed towards either the Big Rip or Big Freeze scenario since the expansion of space looks as though it is accelerating, driven by the mysterious force known as dark energy that makes up 68 percent of the universe, according to NASA.

However, a team of three scientists from New York and New Jersey think that dark energy might not stick around forever. They think that dark energy might actually be something called quintessence, which changes over time.

If this is the case, the researchers say, then dark energy will eventually be insufficient to continue driving the universe's expansion and the gravitational pull of everything in space will cause everything to fall in on itself.

Perhaps the most striking element of their research is the prediction that this could happen shockingly soon—the transition from expansion to contraction could occur less than 100 million years from now, they say.

This is a mere blink of an eye in cosmic terms, considering that scientists generally believe the universe has been around for about 13.8 billion years, which is when the Big Bang was believed to have occurred.

After this transition, the universe could begin a "slow contraction phase" lasting in the order of 1 billion years before exploding once again.

Gary Hinshaw, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of British Columbia who was not involved in the study, told Live Science that the theory stated by the scientists was not implausible. However, the predictions are impossible to test currently and remain only theories.

Hinshaw added: "I think it really just boils down to how compelling do you find this theory to be and, more importantly, how testable do you find it to be?"

The research was published in the journal The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on April 5.