Although our Sun is an ordinary star, the Solar System is the only planetary system known to harbor life. Studying the Solar System enables us to learn how stable planetary systems form and how planets develop the conditions needed for life.
We think we know how stars live and die, but our picture of how stars form to begin with is incomplete. Although astronomers have discovered well over 160 planets in other solar systems, we do not really know what conditions actually produce life.
Soon after the Big Bang, the Universe became a space filled with "stuff:" neutral gas, dark matter, and radiation. After several hundred million years, primitive structures began to form from the first chemical elements, creating the first massive stars and eventually the first galaxies.
Working from the standard model of the "Big Bang" some 14 billion years ago, we are investigating the early epoch of inflation and the nature and role of dark matter in the evolution of structure in the Universe. We also seek to understand the nature and properties of the "dark energy" that is speeding up the expansion of the Universe.
Science is successful because the physical laws we discover on Earth work everywhere and everywhen. We use laboratory experiments to expand our understanding of physical processes and then apply these results to processes throughout the Universe.
The most violent and energetic phenomena in the Universe include gamma-ray bursts, supernova explosions, black holes, neutron stars, and the as yet unidentified cosmic accelerators which produce the highest energy photons and cosmic rays.