11/03/2010 01:21 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Can We Predict the Future of the Stars?

In many cultures, the stars and planets play a major role in predicting the future of humans and their world. Now, astronomers, with the help of Hubble telescope, say they can predict the future of the stars -- not just for a few years, but for at least 10,000 years into the future.

We are so used to looking at the past that we don't even realize it, and rather strangely, we deem it as the present. When we look at the Sun, we see it as it existed about 8 minutes ago, for the finite speed of light, though it is a humongous 186,000 miles per second, takes that much time to reach 93 million miles to the earth. In a similar fashion, an object at a million light years away could be seen with a telescope. Again, that picture represents the object's state a million years ago. Astronomers are particularly familiar with this issue and have no choice but to continue.

The researchers used the Hubble telescope to map the motion of 100,000 stars in the Omega Centauri globular cluster over a period of four years. Omega Centauri is one of the star clusters in the Milky Way galaxy, and is about 15,000 light years away from earth. This star cluster could be often seen in southern sky with unaided eye. In fact, the ancient astronomer Ptolemy even cataloged this as a single star. Later on, it has been identified as a behemoth cluster of stars. And, now with Hubble's sharp vision cameras, astronomers know what Ptolemy thought as a single star is a compact cluster of millions of stars moving like a swarm of bees. The Milky Way contains about 150 such star clusters.

Employing the images that were taken in 2002 and 2006, the astronomers created a simulation of the motion of the cluster's stars. This would represent the future motion of the stars projected over the next 10,000 years. Assuming the simulation to be an accurate depiction of the cluster based on the known laws of nature, such as gravity and speed of light, strangely, this future vision would represent the state of the cluster as it existed about 5000 years ago.


Astrology and astronomy, not estranged in the early days of science, are clearly distinguished these days -- with astrology considered as a pseudoscience, although some would disagree. Astronomy, on the other hand, has the strength of observation and rational principles to support it. Armed with such tools, modern day astronomers take pride in predicting the future of stars or even the universe. Interestingly, such predictions are the common norm in astrology, which are based on feeble myths and supernatural stories.

What enable the astronomers to look into the future are the so-called absolute laws of nature, which we have mastered over hundreds of years of life on this planet through rational process. These robust laws, ruthless in their accuracy, can predict the exact date of future eclipses or even the impending approach of an asteroid or comet. Yet, some researchers are now concerned about the immutability of such laws. Are these laws unchanging and absolute or are they evolving with time like the stars and planets?

We like to see our world as deterministic, because it has an innate beauty and order appended to it. It makes sense to think that the cause precedes the effect. Even if our universe is a random accident, we still want to believe that it must have been caused by the deterministic laws that govern it. Stephen Hawking once wrote, "I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road."

But, what if these laws of physics and constants, considered as sacred, vary over a long period of time? Or, even worse, are different in distant parts of the universe. Then, one has to say the random universe is governed by apparent laws rather than absolute ones. Like politicians owe their allegiance to the constitution, scientists depend heavily on these laws to interpret the observations and make predictions. And, if these laws take apparent paths, we would create a different history for our universe based on those findings. Truly, "the observation creates history."