Skip navigation
Share this page
Consortia Online Events
Castle Lecture Series
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.
Related Resources
Discover related research, exhibitions, videos, web features, and teacher materials:

Mysteries of the Universe »
Biodiversity »
World Cultures »
The American Experience »

Consortium for Unlocking the Mysteries of the Universe

2012 Grand Challenges Award Projects

Level One Projects

Phosphorus-poor Terrestrial Ecosystems as a Proxy for Life on Tectonically Inactive Exoplanets
One of the main aims of the Life in the Cosmos project is to extrapolate expertise of terrestrial systems to understand how life might form and evolve in other parts of the cosmos. Earth is the only planet in the solar system with vast layers of rock (plates) that form and move below the planet’s surface, and plate movement and formation (tectonics) are unlikely to be characteristic of most planets that exist outside our solar system (exoplanets). Nutrients on Earth are depleted over time by weathering and replenished by tectonic activity that brings minerals to the surface from deep within the Earth. Planets outside the solar system that do not exhibit plate formation and movement will then have very nutrient-poor surface environments, which might pose a severe challenge for the formation and evolution of life. On Earth, biological productivity is limited by nitrogen in young soils and by phosphorus on older substrates, with ages of more than a thousand years or so. Phosphorus is essential for all known forms of life. It plays a major role in biological molecules such as DNA and RNA, and in the structural components of all cellular membranes. Living cells also use phosphate to transport cellular energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

To begin to understand if life can develop on tectonically-inactive exoplanets, we are conducting a pilot study of the most phosphorus-poor ecosystems known on the surface of the Earth: a dune chronosequence in south-western Australia with ages from a few thousand to greater than 2 million years. We will study the effects of severe nutrient limitations and the competition between flora and soil microbes as a function of phosphorus availability, which scales with age, to probe whether nutrient-poor exoplanets can develop and sustain biodiversity, and what the effects of severe nutrient limitations would be on exoplanetary ecosystems.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Jeremy Drake (Principal Investigator)

Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
Ed Vicenzi

Museum Conservation Institute
Ben Turner Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Level Two Projects

The Faint Young Sun Paradox
The faint young Sun paradox is a fundamental problem challenging our understanding of the evolution of stars and habitable planets. Models of stellar evolution predict that the luminosity of the young Sun was only 70% of what it is today. Accordingly, in the early solar system the zone of habitability - the range of distances from the Sun where water is liquid - was closer to the sun and the surfaces of the Earth and Mars should have been frozen. However, the biology and geology of the Earth and the geology of Mars suggest that the habitable zone was always large enough to include them both. Liquid water was key to the evolution of life on Earth and ancient erosion features on the surface of Mars provide compelling evidence for large amounts of liquid water on the surface during its early history. This poses a serious challenge for our understanding of the evolution of the Sun and stars in general, and introduces an unknown time-dependence into the location of the habitable zone around a star. A solution to the faint young Sun paradox is thus intimately related to the question of when and where a planet is habitable. Ultimately, to understand the evolution of extra-solar planets, we must understand the complexities and evolution of the habitable zone within our own solar system.

A controversial solution to the faint young Sun paradox supposes that the young Sun was more massive and thus more luminous. We will explore the possibility that the Sun may have shed as much as 5% of its baby fat via a vigorous solar wind during its early evolutionary phases, thus allowing the young heavier Sun to provide enough heat for water to be liquid on the surfaces of Earth and Mars. We will study the past climate on Mars through an investigation of spatial and temporal variations of past geologic processes on Mars using high-resolution topographic data on the shapes of craters collected from several locations. This project is pan-Institutional and interdisciplinary, and will draw on refined evidence for the history of liquid water on Mars based on a new reading of the geological data, on new models for the way the mass loss from the young Sun depends on the history of its spin, and on a new characterization of the way Sun-like stars spin down, based on new data from NASA's Kepler mission. This project will lay the foundation for major funding requests from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA to further study the enduring problem of the faint young Sun.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
David Latham (Principal Investigator)
Ofer Cohen
Jeremy Drake
Soren Meibom

Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
Bob Craddock National Air and Space Museum

Studies of Large-Scale Ordered Carbon Structures in the Universe
The seminal detection of regular carbon cages (C60 and C70) in the infrared (IR) emission of several planetary sources has captured the imagination of the scientific community, but has also spawned a number of intriguing questions. The mere fact that such atomistically pristine molecules are now known to exist in the dust of the interstellar medium (ISM), while their natural terrestrial abundance is low, has led to such fundamental questions such as: how they form, and do other regular carbon macromolecules, such as nanotube or graphene, also exist in the ISM? Because carbon nanotubes and other ordered carbon structures possess distinctive spectroscopic signatures, they may too be detectable in space. In this project, we will attempt to answer these questions by calculating their properties, understanding the formation pathways through transient states, and laying the groundwork for selective and sensitive detection of these or other new species. For instance, by means of mass spectroscopy and isotopic fractionation, we hope in the near future to better understand the extent and size-scale of ordered carbon in the Universe. This joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Museum Conservation Institute leverages the synergies and expertise between these disparate and otherwise non-interacting units in a compelling new way. The quantum chemical simulations of the time dynamics of formation of fullerenes and other ordered structures at SAO will be coupled with experimental characterization of isotopic ratios and mass spectral analysis of carbon materials at MCI.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Hossein Sadeghpour (Principal Investigator)
Michael McCarthy

Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
Christine France
Mehdi Moini
Museum Conservation Institute