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Stanford Earth hosts inaugural meeting for Bay Area planetary scientists

Stanford Earth faculty members invited scientists from all over the Bay Area to share research and foster local collaborations for an inaugural meeting at Stanford.

Illustration of planet
Thisartistic concept of exoplanet Kepler186f is the result of scientists and artists collaborating to imagine the appearance of distant worlds. Image credit NASA AmesSETI InstituteJPLCaltech

Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth) hosted a symposium to encompass planetary science research – a new expansion to the School’s deep expertise in geophysics and geological sciences. About 80 scientists from Northern California gathered Nov. 22 for the inaugural Bay Area Planetary Science (BAPS) meeting. A crossover of astronomy and the geosciences, planetary science focuses on the study of planets both in and outside our solar system.

The meeting included talks about otherworld seismology, the formation of atmospheres, machine learning data approaches, volatile elements and more. Sonia Tikoo-Schantz, an assistant professor of geophysics at Stanford Earth, discussed her work in paleomagnetism using rocks to unravel the history of magnetic fields on planetary bodies.

“There is planetary science all over the Bay Area, from UC Santa Cruz and NASA all the way out to UC Davis and everywhere in between,” Tikoo-Schantz said. “We are trying to get the conversation started for all of these groups and build some collaborations with everyone in the Bay Area through this symposium.”

The idea for the symposium came about as an organic conversation amongst several recently hired faculty, including assistant geological sciences professors Laura Schaefer and Mathieu Lapôtre, according to Tikoo-Schantz, and they hope to make it a semi-annual event.

Since planetary science is a new focus within the School, the researchers are also hoping to showcase the strengths of the burgeoning field at the university.

“From my point of view, planetary science allows us to do better geology because it makes us actually think about the assumptions that are built into our work on Earth,” said professor Jonathan Payne, chair of the Department of Geological Sciences.

“Part of the excitement of being in a university is that sometimes we hire in broad directions that we think are going to be productive, but then the specifics of what grows out of that always depend upon what happens spontaneously from the faculty, which is sometimes different from what you’d expect,” Payne said. “We want their vision to control that.”

The organizers also noted the unique opportunity that students will have by studying planetary science at this early phase in the School’s growth.

“Students who join us at this stage will have a lot of power in shaping the direction in which research in planetary science goes,” Tikoo-Schantz said. “I think it’s going to be a really dynamic and exciting environment to be a part of, because in some sense we’re still figuring it out. But we have some of the best people in the world who are new to Stanford and are figuring it out.”

Although several faculty members at the School focus on geological or geophysical techniques for Earth, those techniques can often be applied to other planetary bodies. Stanford geophysicists Howard Zebker and Dustin Schroeder have both brought their expertise in radar remote sensing to space exploration: Zebker has contributed to the NASA Cassini mission to Titan, an icy moon of Saturn, and Schroeder is a science team member on the Europa Clipper mission to study Jupiter's icy moon Europa, as well as the Mini-RF radar on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter studying Earth's Moon. Others use clues from foreign bodies to understand planetary formation, like geological sciences professor Don Lowe, who analyzes the role of giant meteorite impacts in early crustal development.

“For a long time, there’s been some planetary science in the School, but what’s changed in the last several years is an explicit focus on that as an area of growth,” Payne said. “One of the reasons for this is technological change – for example, we’re now getting high-resolution remote sensing data for other planetary bodies, supplemented by ground data on Mars, that allow us to start really doing geology in the way that we do it on Earth.”

Media Contacts

Laura Schaefer

School of Earth, Energy & Envoronmental Sciences

Sonia Tikoo-Schantz

School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences

Mathieu Lapôtre

School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences

Danielle T. Tucker

Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability

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