There are a few key takeaway points from this video. At first, very little appears to happen, but that’s an illusion. Consider the constellations. They’re two-dimensional projections on a three-dimensional sky, which means that although the stars form a picture, virtually none of the stars in a given constellation are at the same distance from us. In the video, you can spot Orion on the far right, just below the bright plane of the galaxy. The Big Dipper (technically an asterism, not a constellation) appears in the upper left, high above the galaxy’s plane.
When you hit play, the constellations are quickly distorted beyond all recognition within about 100,000 years — literally just a few frames into the video. That’s because the stars nearer to us appear to move significantly, while those farther away don’t appear to move as much. None of the stars move in tandem, so the patterns are torn apart. So while our current constellations may last for thousands more years, between ten and a hundred thousand years from now, astronomers will need to come up with some new patterns.
Next, keep in mind that this video has some limitations. The first frame seems to show intricate structure and even stripes in the plane of the Milky Way, but those are actually just artificial data artifacts in areas where Gaia hasn’t measured the positions of stars (or hasn’t measured them accurately enough to predict a believable proper motion). Those artifacts are washed out pretty quickly, though, as closer stars move into the areas where less data exists.
Some dark areas, though, are clouds of interstellar dust, which block the light from stars sitting behind them. Those stars aren’t visible today, so the video doesn’t include the “new” stars we might see popping out from behind the clouds as the millennia scroll by. The clouds themselves can also move, which similarly isn’t taken into account here. The motion of these clouds over time would basically change the detailed structure of the Milky Way we see when we look up in the sky, like subtly shifting the stripes on a tiger’s back.
Finally, the stars themselves aren’t eternal. Because it takes time for light to travel across space, you may wonder if the stars you’re seeing in the sky are even really there. For the most part, the answer is yes, simply because stars live so long compared to humans (or human civilization), that the chances of one disappearing in a human lifetime are pretty small. But, if you wait a few hundred thousand years, that won’t be true — that’s when the bright red star in Orion’s shoulder, Betelgeuse, is expected to go supernova. We’ll notice about 600 years later (give or take a few hundred years, because the distance to Betelgeuse is fairly hard to pin down), when the star grows very bright, then dims away past naked-eye visibility. Orion’s really going to start falling apart then, because the bright star that marks one of his knees, Rigel, will go out similarly relatively soon after.
So keep in mind that although this video carries the stars through the next five million years, not all of the stars you see will make it that long. Some will disappear, and new ones might become visible. Regardless of the changes that occur, the sky is changing — but with the data we currently possess, we can now take a peek at what the far future holds in store.
SOURCE: Blastr / ESA.