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8 truly horrifying ways the Earth could die

by Alien UFO Sightings
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When astronaut Jim Lovell saw Earth outside his window during Apollo 8, the moment forever changed him.

“People often say, ‘I hope to go to heaven when I die,'” Lovell previously told Business Insider. “In reality, if you think about it, you go to heaven when you’re born.”

Lovell was referring to the humbling truth about our fragile existence: Life exists here only because it teeters in a delicate and truly improbable balance. Our atmosphere, proximity to the sun, and countless other beautiful coincidences not only permit living things to survive and evolve, but also to thrive.

And yet, here we are, sitting at desks and in coffee shops and walking down the street like it isn’t some kind of extraordinary miracle.

But all good things must come to an end.

One day Earth will be inhospitable to anything resembling life as we know it.

The life on this planet likely won’t cease until billions of years from now. But, depending on how the stars align — in some cases, literally — it could also happen tomorrow or anytime in between.

Here are the many ways scientists believe the Earth as we know it could die.

This story was originally published on March 30, 2016 at 8:55 a.m. ET and updated with new information.

1) The Earth’s molten core might cool.

earth core shutterstock

Earth is surrounded by a protective magnetic shield, called the magnetosphere.

cme magnetosphere nasa

The field is generated by Earth’s rotation, which swirls a thick shell of liquid iron and nickel (the outer core) around a solid ball of metal (the inner core), creating a giant electric dynamo.

earth core magnetosphere flickr

The magnetosphere deflects energetic particles that emanate from the sun, changing its size and shape as it’s hit.

solar flare

Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

The resulting flood of high-energy particles that slam into Earth’s air can trigger beautiful auroras, or sometimes disruptive geomagnetic storms.


Source: Business Insider

If and when the core cools, the dynamo shuts off and we lose our magnetosphere — along with protection from solar winds. This would slowly blast our atmosphere into space.

mars solar wind

Source: Live ScienceTech Insider

Mars — once rich with water and a thick atmosphere — suffered this same fate billions of years ago, leading to the nearly airless, possibly lifeless world we know today.

mars globe valles marineris enhanced full

Sources: Tech InsiderBusiness Insider

2) The sun could start to die and expand.

red giant star shutterstock

The sun, and our position relative to it, is perhaps the most important piece of our tenuous existence.

sun earth

But the sun is still a star. And all stars die.

But the sun is still a star. And stars die.

The sun rises as fog covers the Inntal valley in the western Austrian village of Grinzens. 

That won’t last forever, though. Billions of years from now the sun will run low on hydrogen and start fusing helium.

solar flare the sun fusion

Source: The Conversation

It’s a more energetic reaction and will push the sun’s layers outward, and possibly start pulling the Earth toward the sun.

sunburst over earth

Sources: CornellScientific American

We’d be incinerated and then vaporized.

molten planet nasa

Sources: Business InsiderScientific American

That or the sun’s expansion would push the Earth out of orbit. It’d die frozen as a rogue planet: a world untethered to any star, drifting through the void.

dead planet earth no water shutterstock

Source: The Conversation

3) Speaking of rogue planets: One could shove Earth into a deadly orbit.

rogue planet gas giant nasa

Space isn’t kind. Planets often get kicked out of their solar systems during formation.

Artist’s impression of Fomalhaut b. 

Source: National Geographic

According to recent simulations, in fact, rogue planets may outnumber stars in the Milky Way by 100,000 to one.

rogue planet nasa jpl caltech

Source: National Geographic

One of those rogue planets could drift into the solar system, put Earth into an extreme and inhospitable orbit, or even kick us out of the solar system.

rogue planet milky way stars flickr dave dugdale ccbysa2

A world that’s large enough and drifts close enough could even kick us out of the solar system entirely. (Or cause us to collide with a nearby planet, like Venus or Mercury.)

solar system space map orbits nasa

Source: Space.com

As a rogue planet, Earth would freeze into an ice ball. A gravitational shove into an elliptical orbit could cause the planet to swing between unimaginable cold and scorching heat.

frozen snowball earth ice shutterstock_382981525

Source: Space.com

4) A rogue planet could hit Earth.

rogue planet hits earth collision apocalypse shutterstock_3381760

Instead of just passing by Earth and disrupting its orbit, a drifting world could make a direct hit.

melancholia rogue planet rogue planet
Ever watched the movie “Melancholia”? 

It wouldn’t be unprecedented. About 4.5 billion years ago, a small planet crashed into a larger planet in the solar system — forming Earth and its moon.

moon formation illustration

Source: NASA

A new theory suggests the two planets completely vaporized into a rapidly spinning doughnut of gaseous and liquid rock. Over time, the moon and Earth condensed from the chaotic cloud.

synestia vaporized rock moon formation

Source: Business Insider

5) Asteroids and comets could bombard the planet.

earth comets asteroid impacts water illustration shutterstock_155504771
An illustration of comets and asteroids striking planet Earth. 

Hollywood loves death-by-asteroid.

armageddon deep impact

Rocks from space can be pretty destructive — a big one probably wiped out the dinosaurs — though it would take a lot of asteroids to properly dispatch the entire planet.

killer asteroid space rocks swarm striking impacting earth shutterstock_384421855

Still, it could happen. Earth was heavily bombarded by asteroids for hundreds of millions of years after it formed.

asteroid impact strike hit nasa

Source: New Scientist

The impacts were so intense that the oceans boiled for a full year.


Source: Wired

All life was single-celled at that point, and only the most heat-tolerant microbes made it.

a single celled animal that preys upon various algae, diatoms, and cyanobacteria

Source: New Scientist

Today’s larger lifeforms almost certainly wouldn’t make it. Air temperatures could reach more than 900 degrees Fahrenheit for several weeks if we suffered a similar pummeling.

house burning

Source: Science News

6) The Earth could pass too close to a wandering black hole.

black hole

Black holes might be Hollywood’s second-favorite form of planet death. It’s easy to see why.

black hole from interstellar

They’re as mysterious as they are frightening. Even the name is ominous.

black hole stars galaxies warped space nasa

Source: NPR

We don’t know much about them, but we do know they’re so dense that not even light can escape beyond a black hole’s event horizon.

black hole

And scientists think “recoiled” black holes are out there wandering through space, just like rogue planets. It’s not inconceivable that one could pass through the solar system.

black hole

Source: NASA

A small black hole might harmlessly pass through the Earth, though anything larger than mass of the moon — and the size of a grain of sand — would cause big problems.

earth black holes miniature nasa

Source: Business Insider

If light can’t escape, the Earth definitely won’t. There are two ideas about what could happen after the point of no return, given a big-enough rogue black hole.

black hole

Source: KIPAC/Stanford

Beyond the event horizon, atoms might stretch until they’re pulled apart entirely: a process called spaghettification, or the noodle effect.

black hole

Source: Business Insider

Other physicists have theorized we’d run right into the end of the universe, or end up in an entirely different one.

black hole

Source: National Geographic

Even if a recoiled black hole misses Earth, it might pass closely enough to cause earthquakes and other devastation, kick us out of the solar system, or spiral us into the sun.

asteroids near earth

Source: AskAMathematician

6) The Earth could be obliterated in a gamma ray burst.

black hole shoots xray flare burst nasa jpl PIA20051

Gamma ray bursts, or GRBs, are one of the most powerful phenomena in the universe.

gamma ray
An artist’s impression shows a gamma-ray burst emitting light that shines through two galaxies. 

Source: Universe Today

Most are the result of massive stars collapsing when they die. One short blast can emit more energy than our sun will over the course of its lifetime.

gamma ray burst nasa fermi
An image of the most powerful GRB ever recorded. 

Source: National Geographic

That energy has the potential to eradicate the ozone layer, flood the Earth with dangerous ultraviolet light, and trigger rapid global cooling.

gamma ray burst grb earth dna damage

Source: International Journal of Astrobiology

In fact, a GRB pointed at Earth might have caused the first mass extinction 440 million years ago.

Trilobites were one of the few groups of animals that survived the Ordovician-Silurian event. 

Source: Live Science

Luckily, David Thompson, deputy project director on the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, told National Geographic that GRBs aren’t really a big concern.

gamma ray night sky gleamoscope fermi telescope

Source: National Geographic

He told the magazine the risk was equivalent to “the danger I might face if I found a polar bear in my closet in Bowie, Maryland.”

Polar Bear expedition (bear)
Or two. 

Source: National Geographic

8) The universe could go to pieces in its final “Big Rip.”

Laniakea map universe

This is the thing that could actually end the whole universe, not just the Earth.

map of the universe large

The idea: A mysterious force called dark energy is pushing the universe apart at a faster and faster rate.

dark matter

If this keeps accelerating, as it seems to be doing now, perhaps 22 billion years from now the force that keeps atoms together will fail — and all matter in the universe will dissolve into radiation.

atom illustration public domain

But assuming the “Big Rip” is a dud, who knows what might happen after a global calamity humans don’t survive?


It’s possible some microbes and fungi will survive to reseed more complex life.

05 mold fungus rotting red tomato lerman nikon small world microscope image

But if our destruction is total, we could at least hope some other intelligent life exists out there, and can pay its respects.

largest structure in universe

Kelly Dickerson and Sarah Kramer contributed to this post.

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