The Astrophysics Division has laid out a strategy to discover the origin, structure, evolution of our cosmos..
Throughout recorded history and perhaps before, we have wondered about the possible existence of other worlds, like or unlike our own. The earliest understanding of the solar system showed us that there were indeed other worlds in orbit about our Sun, and steadily growing understanding of their natures shows that all are dramatically different from Earth, and mostly very different from one another. As we came to understand that the stars in the sky are other suns, and that the galaxies consist of billions of stars, it appeared a near certainty that other planets must orbit other stars. And yet, it could not be proven, until the early 1990’s. Then, radio and optical astronomers detected small changes in stellar emission which revealed the presence of first a few, and now many, planetary systems around other stars. We call these planets “exoplanets” to distinguish them from our own solar system neighbors.
The night sky presents the viewer with a picture of a calm and unchanging Universe. So when scientists noticed that the Universe is in fact expanding at enormous speed this was revolutionary. Astronomers noted that galaxies outside our own Milky Way were all moving away from us, each at a speed proportional to its distance from us. There must have been an instant in time (now known to be about 14 billion years ago) when the entire Universe was contained in a single point in space. The Universe must have been born in this event which came to be known as the "Big Bang."
What is dark energy? More is unknown than is known — we know how much there is, and we know some of its properties; other than that, dark energy is a mystery — but an important one. Roughly 70% of the Universe is made of dark energy. Dark matter makes up about 25%. The rest - everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter adds up to less than 5% of the Universe. Then again, maybe it shouldn't be called "normal" matter since it is a small fraction of the Universe!
How do stars form and evolve? Stars are the most widely recognized astronomical objects, and represent the most fundamental building blocks of galaxies. The age, distribution, and composition of the stars in a galaxy trace the history, dynamics, and evolution of that galaxy. Moreover, stars are responsible for the manufacture and distribution of heavy elements such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, and their characteristics are intimately tied to the characteristics of the planetary systems that may coalesce about them. Consequently, the study of the birth, life, and death of stars is central to the field of astronomy.
Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is typical: it has hundreds of billions of stars, enough gas and dust to make billions more stars, and about six times as much dark matter as all the stars and gas put together. And it’s all held together by gravity. Like more than two-thirds of the known galaxies, the Milky Way has a spiral shape. At the center of the spiral, a lot of energy and, occasionally, vivid flares. are being generated. Based on the immense gravity that would be required explain the movement of stars and the energy expelled, the astronomers conclude that at the center of the Milky Way is a supermassive black hole.
Don't let the name fool you: a black hole is anything but empty space. Rather, it is a great amount of matter packed into a very small area - think of a star ten times more massive than the Sun squeezed into a sphere approximately the diameter of New York City. The result is a gravitational field so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape. In recent years, NASA instruments have painted a new picture of these strange objects that are, to many, the most fascinating objects in space. What happens at the edge of a Black Hole?