For those of you who took the news hard that the world will not end this December, NASA has new hope and an approximate date — 4 billion years from now.
That’s when the Milky Way galaxy — that’s us — will collide with the Andromeda galaxy, which is about the same size and age as our own. We’re almost twins, astronomers say.
Scientists have long seen Andromeda heading in our direction, at approximately 1.2 million miles an hour, really crawling in terms of space speed, but figured that it would miss or only graze the Milky Way.
But among the many breakthrough discoveries of the Hubble Space Telescope is that Andromeda will indeed plow into the Milky Way. Said Roeland van der Marel, an astronomer with the institute that operates the Hubble: “This is pretty violent as things go in the universe. It’s like a bad car crash in galaxy-land.”
Actual physical collision may be rare because of the immense distances between the stars and planets within the galaxies, but the Earth will get a whole new nighttime sky and that will drive many astrologers out of business.
At hubblesite.org there’s a colorful image of what the merged galaxies might look like from Earth — spectacular enough almost to be worth waiting around for.
Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb dubbed the merged galaxy “Milkomeda.” No offense, sir, but that’s a terrible name, more like a breakfast cereal than a wonder of the universe. We’d suggest letting it go for the time being and holding a naming contest in 3 million years or so.
Once Andromeda arrives, the collision itself will take about 2 billion years. That should give us some time to make other arrangements — all those planets we’re discovering should be good for something — because although NASA assures Earth and the planets will survive, the sun will not. It will be flung somewhere else in the merged galaxy and shortly after go dead.
Again, that’s 4 billion years from now. Mark your calendars accordingly.
Dale McFeatters is chief editorial writer and a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service; www.scrippsnews.com.