Sabine Stanley is a planetary physicist focusing on magnetic fields as means of studying the interiors of planets, including those in little-understood realms light years away from our solar system.
She is grappling with one of the most elusive questions of our universe— how planets work. It’s heady research that might get scientists closer to understanding whether planets beyond Earth could sustain, or have sustained, forms of life. Sabine’s research involves understanding planetary interior processes and evolution.
She focuses on planetary magnetic fields, dynamo theory, interior structure models and other geophysical methods to learn about the deep interiors of planets. Her work includes projects on many solar system bodies (Mercury, Moon, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, asteroids and planetesimals) as well as extrasolar planets. To explore these exciting areas of research, she uses a combination of numerical simulations, theory and comparison to observations from various missions.
Stanley is eager to see what new findings might come from the largest planets of our own solar system, through two major NASA explorations: the Juno Mission to Jupiter and the Cassini mission to Saturn.
“We’re on the cusp of an extreme wealth of new data,” Stanley says. Investigating magnetic fields of these planets, she says, could improve our understanding of the origins of all planets.
She joined Johns Hopkins as a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor in 2016. The proximity to space missions was one motivation for Stanley to join Johns Hopkins, after 11 years of research and teaching at the University of Toronto. Not only is she closer to NASA, but she’s also working directly with a cadre of planetary scientists at John Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory. Through the university she also has access to high-performance computing facilities that allow for the in-depth simulations of magnetic fields that are the cornerstone of her research.
As a child in Sudbury, Ontario, Stanley knew she had a knack for math and science, but had no notion this could lead her toward the deepest corners of space. In a family of non-scientists—her parents owned an Italian restaurant, which she essentially grew up in—her best guess was that she might become a doctor. Watching Star Trek, she says, gave her the first taste of a passion for space science. As an undergrad at the University of Toronto, Stanley studied astronomy and physics, but found herself wanting more direct work with planets. When she entered Harvard in 1999, she turned to geophysics for her master’s then doctorate degree, narrowing her focus on planetary interiors.
After a postdoctoral fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she returned to her alma mater in Toronto, ultimately becoming the Canada Research Chair in Planetary Physics. There she fine-tuned her research on magnetic fields, shifting from planets in our own solar system toward investigations of exoplanets.
Exoplanets—which orbit around stars beyond our own Sun—are a relatively new research frontier for space science, with the most significant discoveries coming forward during the past decade. To date, scientists have confirmed nearly 3,500 exoplanets, and have data suggesting there may be thousands more in existence.
Stanley is making a name for herself in this pioneering field through her research on the atmospheres of “Hot Jupiters,” a class of exoplanets that are similar to Jupiter but orbit very close to their stars; as well as her work on water-rich exoplanets known as “ocean worlds,” and rocky exoplanets known as “Super-Earths.”
Such studies are helping crack the mystery of how magnetic fields work for these distant planets—getting us closer to knowing if they’ve ever hosted forms of life. On Earth, magnetic fields help protect living creatures from dangerous solar wind, but not much is understood yet about their implications for exoplanets, and how they might affect habitability.
Another longtime interest Stanley will continue at Johns Hopkins is her advocacy for diversity within the STEM fields, particularly increasing the representation of women and minorities in the sciences. She recently spoke on these topics in a Q&A with Eos: Earth & Space Science News.