Science Challenges

A. How did the Universe begin and how is it evolving?

Understanding how the Universe began and how it is evolving are two of the most fundamental questions we seek to answer. Adding knowledge of the structure and constituents of the Universe reveals deeper questions and mysteries about how nature fits together.

The Universe ‘began’ in a very hot, dense, state, at temperatures and energies well beyond anything we can currently test in a laboratory. In order to explore this, we need to understand how the theories of matter and particle physics interface with gravity.

We also need to understand how any universe could begin so we can predict how our Universe that we see today can evolve. For example, how do galaxies form? One of the key questions we have is ‘Why is so much of our Universe dark?’

The present-day composition of the universe is only 5% in ordinary (baryonic matter), 25% in the form of Dark Matter and remaining 70% as the illusive Dark Energy. Dark Energy is thought to cause the accelerating expansion of the Universe, a phenomenon whose observation was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011.

Determining the source and explanation of these phenomena is of crucial importance to completing the picture of the cosmos.

Understanding the Universe takes us from exotic conceptual theories of physics, to experiments underground trying to detect Dark Matter; from state of the art mega- simulations of galaxies forming and evolving to space missions attempting to understand the nature of Dark Energy. The goal of understanding our origins encompasses all areas of theory, experiment, and observation, and can truly be considered a fundamental science challenge.

 

Return to all challenges

B: How do stars and planetary systems develop and how do they support the existence of life?

Is there life elsewhere in the Universe?

We know that microbial life can survive in hostile and extreme environments such as deep sea geothermal vents. The consensus now is that where there is water, nutrients and an energy source such as our Sun there is the possibility for discovering life. The obvious first place to search for extra-terrestrial life is within our own solar system. Possible examples include Mars, which may have regions in its permafrost that could harbour microbial communities, and also in the subsurface water ocean of Jupiter’s moon, Europa.

The Sun is central to life on Earth. Its proximity to us means it can be studied to levels of detail not possible for other stars. As such the Sun has a special place in astronomy, underpinning studies of how stars and their planets form and evolve.

Satellites and telescopes are now also discovering thousands of planets orbiting other stars in our Galaxy. These new observations are revealing many exoplanet systems, which will help us to place our solar system in a wider context. Studying them will help us understand how common solar systems like our own are and how many exoplanets might be capable of harbouring life. We may even be able to recognize the existence of life on these distant worlds.

 

Return to all challenges

C: What are the basic constituents of matter and how do they interact?

In order to understand the Universe, we must understand what it is made of and what rules govern its behaviour. We study matter in experiments to understand what its most basic constituents are and how they behave. We also develop theories that explain this behaviour in terms of underlying laws of nature.

Our research has allowed us to identify the most basic building blocks of matter, quarks and leptons, and the forces and energy fields that affect them. We’ve made tremendous advances in understanding the fundamental role these particles have and in describing how these interact with each other within our theories. The recent discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider was an example of how huge progress in experimental technology can be harnessed to address questions in this field.

However, many mysteries remain. We don’t yet understand why there is so little antimatter in the universe. Yet knowing this will help us understand how the universe evolved from the Big Bang to now. We don’t understand what dark matter is made of, or how it behaves, and if it influences normal matter at all. We want to better understand how quarks combine to form larger particles and atomic nuclei, and how nuclear reactions power stars. Above all, we want a deeper and more complete understanding of our universe at these most fundamental levels.

 

Return to all challenges

Last updated: 05 November 2018

Science and Technology Facilities Council
Switchboard: +44 (0)1793 442000