Re: Mere mortals, they are not.
For the life of me I cannot imagine that Dark Matter exists.
Don't see why not. You read about things like pentaquarks here on El Reg on a regular basis. Why is it so hard to conceive of non-baryonic matter made up of a different collection of subatomic particles that result in matter with different properties? We're not talking magic. Just think of dark matter sort of like Linux systems to a Windows admin: same basic building blocks, but being used in a completely different fashion.
I'm convinced that it is gaseous particles, or maybe even small asteroids that orbit galaxies and make up for the "missing matter"
Nope. These would emit light that we could see.
After all, we can hardly spot asteroids in our very own Kuiper Belt
Actually, we're reasonably good at this, given the limitations of the technology to hand. Talk to @plutokiller about how many he's found just in the past few years.
The reason we have trouble is that it's a big ass sky and we have a small ass budget. The primary tool we use for asteroid hunting (Hubble) was never designed for the task. It's slow to turn (shit at tracking anything close by) and has terrible resolution (so kinda crap at focusing on things smaller than stars).
If you wanted to build a modern high end telescope and give it the ability to turn quickly and see in infrared (think an upjumped WISE) you's spot all sorts of awesome stuff. In fact, WISE mark one did see a huge chunk of stuff and we're still picking apart the data from it.
And spotting them in the next solar system is simply impossible
That would be because of the giant ball of fusion that happens to be drowning out the rocks and other things. We can, as a matter of fact, see the interstellar medium and we do have to compensate for it when observing.
Also: the entire mass of a solar system is a mere fraction of the mass of the star. When we calculate what the mass of galaxies "should" be, that's typically included. The problem is that the missing mass is orders of magnitude larger than simply "a bunch of missing planets and asteroids circling the stars".
Questions you didn't ask:
What about rogue planets and brown dwarves?
Glad you asked. This is a growing area of research but the short version is that we can usually actually see these. These live out between the stars so they - believe it or not - count as "galactic dust" as far as we're concerned. They are visible (in aggregate) along with the interstellar medium of the galaxy.
What's more, unless our calculations about solar system formation are wildly off - to the point that we'd need to rewrite physics - there simply can't be enough rogues out there to make up the difference.
I still don't understand what Dark Energy is, though.
Oooooohkay. This is the hard one. Let me try to do this. Apologies for inevitably getting some or all of it wrong.
In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded. And by nothing, of course, I mean everything, but compressed into the most impressive singularity of all time.
Except this wouldn't be a singularity as you understand it. It was "a bunch of baryonic matter shoved into a ball so densely that photons can't escape". Matter didn't exist. Space didn't exist. Not, really, anyways.
But then, all of a sudden, and for no good reason at all, space exploded.
For simplicity's sake I want you to picture the universe as a great big flat circle squished into an impossibly small ball. If you were to unfold that circle and flatten out you would have The Universe in its final, fully extended form. This is The Universe's eventual goal. It was scrunched up so tightly that it is seeking to stretch out a little and get rid of the cramp.
Now, each cubic meter of space to expend energy in order to unfold. This energy comes in the form of two completely different types of energy.
The first type of energy was all released right at the beginning of the universe. The initial collapse of the fundamental singularity caused its emission. At the initial instant of emission it was simply an incomprehensible amount of raw energy occupying an infinitesimal amount of primordial space. This energy would eventually become all matter - dark and baryonic - that we know today.
But the universe was intent on unfolding beyond that mere initial plank space. It continued to expand and as it did so it emitted the second type of energy: dark energy. So far as we can tell, dark energy doesn't interact with the energy that makes up mass in any meaningful way.
In any case, as the universe continued to expand somewhere around 1 usec after the big bang baryogenesis started to occur. The fundamental particles as we understand them formed.
For reasons we don't understand - but which probably mean that either dark energy or dark matter does interact with regular energy on some level - symmetry breaking occurred and the current form of baryonic matter (not baryonic anti-matter) coalesced as the (currently) densest concentrations of energy.
The universe kept right on expanding and that baryonic matter eventually cooled enough that protons and electrons could form atoms and the rest you know from there.
The two odd pieces are symmetry breaking - discussed above - and the variation in universe expansion rates. The initial inflation seems to make perfect sense. The universe sought to unfold and began doing so expeditiously. It then slowed it's expansion for a time and then sped up again.
Some like to think that the gravity of the early universe (it was denser then) slowed the initial expansion. Once past some critical threshold, however, the universe's tendency towards expansion overcame gravity and expansion started accelerating.
The problems with this are A) there's no reason to assume gravity has any sort of effect whatsoever on the universe's desire to expand and B) the universe isn't increasing it's rate of expansion exponentially. (As would be expected if it had overcome some critical threshold.)
The nearest anyone can figure is that the universe is expanding because it damned well wants to, but that it has to expend (or release, like a coiled spring) energy to do so.
I hope that explains things. I am sorry if it doesn't.