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Consortia Online Events
Castle Lecture Series
Noon–1pm
Talks are held monthly and are webcast live. Videos archived here.

Smithsonian Institute for Biodiversity Genomics
12 December 2014
Live webcast and archive available here.

Living in the Anthropocene: Prospects for Climate, Economics, Health, and Security
9 October 2014
Archive available here.

Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 12, 2014
Archive available here.

Scots in the American West Symposium
8 August 2013
Archive available here.

Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 14, 2013
Archive available here.

The Anthropocene: Planet Earth in the Age of Humans
11 October 2012
Archive available here.

Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 10, 2012
Archive available here.

Perspectives on Limits to Growth: Challenges to Building a Sustainable Planet
March 1, 2012
Archive available here.

Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 18, 2011
Archive available here.
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Discover related research, exhibitions, videos, web features, and teacher materials:

Mysteries of the Universe »
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Consortium for Unlocking the Mysteries of the Universe


2010 Grand Challenges Award Projects

Level One Projects


Hubble Space Telescope, NASA 2002
Hubble Space Telescope, NASA 2002

The American Century of Astronomy and Astrophysics
The 20th century was a remarkable period of growth in our knowledge of the structure and evolution of the universe. At its beginning astronomy consisted of creating catalogs of stars, nebulas, asteroids, and comets. By its end we had learned that the Sun is an average star and is one of 100 billion members of a normal galaxy, which is merely one of a 100 billion galaxies that are expanding apart at an accelerating rate in a universe that began with an explosive “Big Bang.” During this time the astronomers’ tool kit expanded from visible light telescopes to include radio, X-ray, and gamma-ray telescopes. Almost all of this was accomplished by both native- and foreign-born astronomers, men and women, working with a series of increasingly large telescopes built in the United States for use on mountain tops, or for launch into space by NASA. We will examine the factors that resulted in the United States being at the center of these activities. They include the contributions of certain dedicated individuals such as George Ellery Hale who had the foresight, determination, and ability to attract support for the construction of a series of increasingly large telescopes. The support of philanthropists was another. The radio telescope pioneers Karl Jansky and Grote Reber can be compared to inventors such as Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers. The results of this study will be presented as either an exhibition at the National Museum of American History or as a book.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Paul Gorenstein (Principal Investigator)
Wallace Tucker

Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
Deborah J. Warner National Museum of American History

This project funded jointly with the Consortium for Understanding the American Experience



Examples of some of the many dunes found on Mars.  Each dune is about the size of a football field.  Their dark color comes from the fact that they are composed of sand that came from basaltic lava flows.  The smaller, lighter ripples come from material underlying the darker, larger, dunes.
Examples of some of the many dunes found on Mars. Each dune is about the size of a football field. The dark color comes from their composition of sand from basaltic lava flows. The smaller, lighter ripples come from material underlying the darker, larger, dunes.

Ancient Basaltic Sand Dunes In Hawaii
Wind has created many different types of dunes on the surface of Mars.  While dunes are also common features on the Earth, the Martian dunes are unique because they are often composed of sediments produced from basaltic volcanoes and lava flows.  Basaltic sand dunes are only found in a few spots on Earth, including the Hawaiian Islands.  As part of our research effort, we will study several different ancient dune fields located on the Big Island of Hawaii, Molokai, and Kauai.  These dunes may have formed when the climate on Hawaii was different, or they may have resulted from a rare, explosive volcanic eruption that occurred sometime in the past.  Our study will combine the talents of researchers from the National Air and Space Museum, the Museum Conservation Institute, and the National Museum of Natural History, as well as scientists from three countries.  Results from our study will help us better understand the history of the Hawaiian Islands, as well as understand how dunes form on the surface of Mars.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Bob Craddock (Principal Investigator)

National Air and Space Museum
Edward Vincenzi Museum Conservation Institute


Development of a Traveling Exhibit for Black Holes in High Energy Astrophysics
We want to develop a detailed plan to create a small traveling exhibit that will be used to present recent results from the Chandra X-ray Observatory to the public. Our ultimate goal is to create an exhibit combining large posters and video to display recent scientific discoveries made in the general science area of high-energy astrophysics. This display would be made available at little or no cost to smaller universities and junior colleges that are not typically associated with astrophysical research. The opening of the exhibition at each new venue would include a public lecture delivered by a Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) scientist. We would also like to create supplementary educational materials (handouts, bookmarks, etc.) that the lecture attendees could take away from the presentation. The seed funding is necessary to coordinate efforts between SAO scientists, the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service personnel, and scientists at the National Air and Space Museum to develop the details of the exhibition, decide what content should be conveyed to the public, and determine what format (posters, videos, etc.) should be used. Our final product from this initial stage of the project will be samples of posters and handouts, plus an initial design concept for creating and funding this project.

We intend to present this exhibition at universities and smaller colleges that are not typically at the forefront of astrophysical research; we also plan to connect with organizations such as the Association of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, the American Association of Community Colleges, and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium of Tribal Colleges and Universities. Students at these institutions are not typically engaged in the research world, and represent an untapped resource. It is clearly valuable to disseminate our work from SAO to students at institutions where they may not have ready access to research opportunities. Finally, we expect to identify a sponsor who would be willing to fund this project so that it can be made available at little or no cost to the host institution.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Ralph Kraft (Principal Investigator)
Bill Forman
Margarita Karovska
Marie Machachek

Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
Jim Zimbelman

National Air and Space Museum
Frederica Adelman Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service



Stephen Scheidt (CEPS, NASM) examines wind-eroded yardangs in Argentina.
Stephen Scheidt (CEPS, NASM) examines wind-eroded yardangs in Argentina.

Earth Analogs for Large Volume Ash Deposits on Mars
The Medusae Fossae Formation (MFF) on Mars is a large, enigmatic deposit that has defied a complete explanation for more than four decades, but recent literature supports an ignimbrite (volcanic ash) origin. We will use remotely observed characteristics of MFF (derived from the many recent datasets available from several spacecraft) as the guide to mine the extensive Global Volcanism Program database at the National Museum of Natural History in order to identify the best terrestrial analog sites, which could later be used in testing the ignimbrite hypothesis for MFF. Results of the analog search process will be used later this year in a new proposal to NASA for geologic mapping of MFF. We will also develop a classroom exercise (involving images of MFF and some terrestrial analogs, plus comparison of ignimbrite eruptions to explosions ranging from firecrackers to the enormous energy released by super-massive black holes), targeted toward middle school science classes, as an outreach component of this project.

Related Resources

  • A classroom lecture and exercise was developed by the team and presented to nine 8th grade classes in Lafayette Parrish in Louisiana as a part of the GEAR UP program (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) in coordination with The Smithsonian Associates. The presentation provides a brief introduction to several key concepts related to energy, a short review of three scientists who contributed greatly to the understanding of energy, and a student exercise. The exercise has students rank five different forms of energy release – an asteroid impact, a volcanic eruption, an earthquake, hurricane, and global use of energy in 2008 – according to what they think is the least energetic to the most energetic. By learning how to calculate the amount of energy related to each event, a comparison can be made even though the form of energy release is different in each case. Ultimately, the students see that the sun releases more energy each year than is stored in all the fossil fuels left inside the Earth, and that mankind could benefit from figuring out better ways to make use of this abundant solar energy.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
James Zimbelman (Principal Investigator)

National Air and Space Museum
Elizabeth Cottrell
Paul Kimberly
Lee Siebert

National Museum of Natural History
Ralph Kraft Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory



Illustration of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (NASA). CEPS, NASM has ongoing mission involvement with this project.
Illustration of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (NASA). CEPS, NASM has ongoing mission involvement with this project.

Establishing Collaboration Opportunities in Research Related to Evolution of a Habital World
Our Level One Grand Challenges grant will support a workshop to be held at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) on May 5 - 6, 2011, and attended by members of SAO, Mineral Sciences at the National Museum of Natural History, and the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the National Air and Space Museum. The focus of the workshop will be to facilitate discussions between scientists at all three units/divisions under the broad theme of research related to the evolution of habitable worlds. The award is built on discussions during an initial meeting involving all three named units/divisions in early 2010 and was presented to a broader audience at the Unlocking the Mysteries of the Universe Idea Fair in the fall of 2010. The workshop theme cuts across ongoing and planned research at all three locations and is supported by all three of the involved units/divisions. The objective of the workshop is to discern areas where common interests and expertise can be identified and used to develop collaborative proposals to any of a variety of NASA programs that may include (but are not limited to) Discovery missions, Planetary Instrument Definition and Development, or multiple Research and Analysis programs.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
John Grant (Principal Investigator)

National Air and Space Museum
Tim McCoy

National Museum of Natural History
Roger Brissenden Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory


Life and the Cosmos: Building the Consortium
How did the Earth form and evolve and where do we come from? What are the conditions necessary to form life-sustaining planets and are we alone in the Universe? These are among the most profound questions mankind can hope to address and lie at the heart of public interest in science, yet are still far from being answered.

Understanding the origin and evolution of life in the Universe is a multidisciplinary problem: from the astrophysics describing the processes giving rise to stars and planets and their environments, and the geology, geophysics, and atmospheric physics of planets, to the chemistry and biology of organic matter and evolution of living organisms. These different aspects are often studied in relative isolation.  However, progress in the last decade or so has highlighted the need for more interaction between these fields.  Expertise in key areas central to these problems now exists at the Smithsonian. The aim of this effort is to assemble a collaboration between Smithsonian units to investigate and fertilize ideas for new cross-disciplinary research on the connection between the cosmos and origin and evolution of life. A symposium to launch the project will be held to gather the experts in relevant disciplines. The collaboration will be formed and steered through this and subsequent, more specialized mini-meetings, with a goal to compete for significant external funding and begin to produce cutting-edge research on life and the cosmos.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Jeremy Drake (Principal Investigator)
Ofer Cohen
Alexander Engell

Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
Bob Craddock

National Air and Space Museum
Richard Bambach
William DiMichelle
Glenn MacPherson

National Museum of Natural History
Carlos Jaramillo
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

This project funded jointly with the Consortium for Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet

Level Two Projects


Dr. Chappell works on the subsystems for a prototype of a remote observatory to monitor local terrestrial ecosystems.
Dr. Chappell works on the subsystems for a prototype of a remote observatory to monitor local terrestrial ecosystems.

The Development of a Remote Environmental Monitoring Observatory (REMO)
Understanding the role of vegetation (such as forests and grasslands) in the Earth’s climate system is a top priority of both the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the National Research Council’s Decadal Review for Earth Science and Applications from Space. Accurate assessments of vegetation parameters, and how they respond to human activity and natural disturbance, are critical in the modeling of global climate dynamics.

Our objective in this proposal is to design and build an autonomous tower-based observatory that will monitor the local terrestrial ecosystems. Image and spectral data will be acquired on an hourly basis from selected spatial regions surrounding the tower. This acquired data will be used to study the short- and long-term changes in the vegetation canopy at the local plot level. In addition, these measurements will greatly improve the ability to scale these local field plot characterizations to large-scale remote sensing imagery coverages.

From the development and testing of this engineering model observatory, we plan to extend the deployment of these tower-based observatories to existing and extensive Smithsonian field sites, such as SIGEO, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) through external funding opportunities. This project builds on and enhances existing Smithsonian activities by drawing together expertise across several units. The researchers at the ecological study sites (SIGEO, STRI, SERC) will provide the science drivers, and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory will provide the expertise in scientific instrumentation design, build, and testing.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Jon Chappell (Principal Investigator)

Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
Andrew Johnston

National Air and Space Museum
Patrick Megonigal

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
Arturo Sanchez-Azofeifa
Joseph Wright
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

This project funded jointly with the Consortium for Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet


Life and the Cosmos: Testing a Cosmic Ray–Climate–Life Connection
“Life and the Cosmos” is a Smithsonian multi-unit effort to tackle questions such as: How did the Earth form and evolve and where did we come from? What are the conditions necessary to form life-sustaining planets? And, are we alone in the Universe? Understanding the origins and evolution of life in the Universe is a multidisciplinary problem. It draws upon astrophysics that describes the processes giving rise to stars and planets and their environments; on the geology, geophysics, and atmospheric physics of planets; and on the chemistry and biology of organic matter and evolution of living organisms. Expertise in key areas central to these problems now exists at the Smithsonian.

This Level Two program will test a possible connection between cosmic rays that originate in violent supernova explosions in the Galaxy and the Earth’s paleoclimate and biomass.  Current evidence for a cosmic ray-life connection is largely circumstantial: no realistic and rigorous calculations of the exposure of the Earth to cosmic rays have been performed that would make conclusions firmer. The latter depends on the solar magnetic activity through time, the solar wind, and its interaction with the Earth’s magnetosphere. At the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, we have recently developed a state-of-the-art model that provides the groundwork for this.  On the biological side, in addition to climate variations, cosmic rays could be of major importance through ionization events at the Earth’s surface and the influence these might have on speciation rates and biological diversity.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Jeremy Drake (Principal Investigator)
Offer Cohen
Alexander Engell

Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
Bob Craddock

National Air and Space Museum
Bill DiMichelle
Glenn MacPherson

National Museum of Natural History
Carlos Jaramillo Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute


A New Method for Studying Interstellar Dust Returned by NASA's STARDUST Mission: Searching for the Building Blocks of the Universe
In 2006, NASA’s STARDUST spacecraft returned samples of pristine contemporary interstellar dust that it had collected during a seven-year mission to encounter comet Wild 2. Particles of interstellar dust are believed to be the fundamental building blocks of the universe. Whereas light elements (hydrogen, helium, and traces of lithium and beryllium) were formed in the Big Bang, heavier elements were created later in the cores of burning stars. Grains of these heavy elements were expelled into space by stars at the end of their life cycle: red giants, planetary nebulae, white dwarfs, novae, and supernovae. The interstellar dust stream is not very dense and STARDUST is expected to have collected several dozen dust particles in an aerogel.  Unfortunately, the methods for extracting the particles from the aerogel are not reliable, which is problematic because there are only a few sample candidates to date. 

We have conceived a new technique that in principle can reliably and precisely remove the aerogel from the particle without damaging or contaminating it. Once the particle is exposed, our high-precision chemical analysis method can follow in-situ. Our objective in this Grand Challenge program is to evaluate our technical method for exposing and analyzing the interstellar material with laboratory tests on dust-like samples injected into aerogel to simulate the actual capture in space. If successful, we will submit a formal proposal to NASA’s Laboratory Analysis of Returned Samples (LARS) program for follow-on funding to examine actual interstellar dust particles.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Eric Silver (Principal Investigator)
Ting Lin

Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
Edward Vicenzi

Museum Conservation Institute
Glenn MacPherson

National Museum of Natural History
Robert Craddock Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute



Cari Corrigan and Jamie Pierce collecting a meteorite in Antarctica
Cari Corrigan and Jamie Pierce collecting a meteorite in Antarctica

Was the Solar System Subjected to a Heavy Bombardment at 3.9 Ga?
The Antarctic Meteorite Program is one of the most successful programs in planetary science.  It has operated for over 30 years, collecting, classifying, curating, and distributing over 18,000 meteorites. In just the last five years, the Antarctic Meteorite Program has described over 4500 meteorites, deposited over 6000 meteorites at the Smithsonian, and filled requests for over 3100 samples. The planetary science research community relies upon the program to provide new and interesting extraterrestrial samples each year. Discoveries based on Antarctic meteorite research have created new paradigms in the planetary science community (e.g., the discoveries of lunar meteorites and Martian meteorites, and the claim of extant life in a Martian meteorite).

This project builds on the strength of the Antarctic Meteorite Program by exploring one of the most interesting questions in planetary science—did the migration of the gas giant planets produce a solar system–wide impact bombardment 3.9 billion years ago? As the end of bombardment also correlates with the advance of life on Earth, this project is important for the biosciences as well as the geosciences. To test this hypothesis, we will undertake a coordinated two-year effort to: (1) survey and characterize clasts in lunar meteorites made of multiple rock types (impact-produced), (2) perform the shock classification of ~6,000 ordinary chondrite meteorites (using microscope-thin sections and meteorite hand samples), and (3) age-date a selected number of these clasts to constrain the timing of impact bombardment. Determination of impact timing from a variety of planetary materials will provide a clearer picture of whether the heavy bombardment was a solar system–wide event, or a phenomenon witnessed only by the Moon.

Related Resources

  • Don your clean room clothing and join Principal Investigator Cari Corrigan on a tour of the Smithsonian's new Antarctic meteorite storage facility in Suitland, MD, where all of the Antarctic meteorites in the national collection are kept under tight security and tight airlocks.
  • Learn more about meteorites in general and the work of the Antarctic Meteorite Program.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Cari Corrigan (Principal Investigator)
Tim McCoy

National Museum of Natural History
Michail Petaev Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory