The defining questions for Astronomy and Astrophysics research are: How did the universe begin, how did it evolve from the soup of elementary particles into the structures seen today, and what is its destiny? How do galaxies form and evolve? How do stars form and evolve? How do planets form and evolve? Is there life elsewhere in the universe? These questions are all part of the fabric of science, cutting across traditional disciplines and connecting the universe from the smallest to the largest scales. Addressing them requires interactions of astronomy with many other disciplines, including physics, mathematics, computer science, and biology.
Astronomy is an ancient scientific discipline, dating back to 1000 BC when astronomers were aware of only six of the nine planets that orbit the Sun and without having the knowledge that the stars were like the Sun. Some of the key tasks for modern astronomy and astrophysics are:
- Map the galaxies, gas, and dark matter in the universe, and survey the stars and planets in the Galaxy.
- Use the universe as a unique laboratory to test the known laws of physics in regimes that are not accessible on Earth and to search for new physics.
- Develop a conceptual framework that accounts for all that astronomers have observed.
- Search for life beyond Earth, and, if it is found, determine its nature and its distribution in the Galaxy.
An essential component of a healthy scientific enterprise is a scientifically literate and well-educated public, and professional scientists have a vital role to play in achieving a world-class system of science education. Astronomical concepts and images have universal appeal, inspiring wonder and resonating uniquely with human questions about our nature and our place in the universe. Thus astronomy and astrophysics play a key role in education and outreach where they can be used as a gateway to enhance the public understanding of science and as a catalyst to improve teachers' education in science and to advance interdisciplinary training of the technical work force.