Kirby Runyon is a planetary geologist, which sounds like the job Sigourney Weaver had in the movie “Avatar.” He’s not a science fiction character: He’s one of Baltimore’s own cutting-edge science newsmakers. Runyon spent his first day of 2019 downloading images of humankind’s very first up-close look at a world beyond Pluto. He works in the Civil Space division of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.
Q: I spent my New Year’s Day under a blanket watching Netflix. You’re saying your day was a little more productive?
A: I’m on the geology team for the New Horizons mission, so my work month started off on New Year’s Eve and bled seamlessly over into New Year’s Day. We had a successful flyby of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft of the 20-mile diameter Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule, which is a Latin phrase roughly meaning, “beyond the known world.” Apt for exploration, isn’t it? Around 10 a.m., we were gathered near the missions operations control room in Laurel, waiting for that signal from the spacecraft to say, “Hi! I’m alive! I made it! And my data recorders are full of data.” And we got that signal roughly around 10:30 a.m. signifying a successful flyby, the most distant planetary exploration ever accomplished in the solar system. Our first picture came back a little bit later that day. My colleague was the first one to get it, and I remember hearing him yell, “I’ve got it!” And everyone just flocked to his computer. There it was, Ultima Thule, surrounded by the blackness of space. It was our first decent image of this new world. Literally, a new horizon.
Q: How did it look?
A: It kind of looks like a snowman. It’s two roughly round balls stuck to one another. The internet has made some memes, photoshopping scarves and eyes and carrot noses. It’s a lumpy world, a frozen time capsule of the beginning when planets began to form 4.5 billion years ago, and it’s relatively unchanged since then. It’s only 30 degrees above absolute zero. We don’t know if there are craters yet because the images aren’t high resolution yet. We’ve gotten a few images and they’re still a little pixelated, but we were able to learn the shape and some hints of its evolutionary history from those early images.
Q: Are you exploring other planets as well?
A: I’m on two Mars missions: One is the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and I’m on the science team for the Mars 2020 Rover. I’ll have input on what the Mars Rover images and maybe where it drives.
Q: I know how my family fights over the remote control. Are there fights over who gets to drive the Mars Rover?
A: [Laughing] That’s not exactly how it works. Scientists make decisions about where it should go, but it’s the engineers who program an uplink package to NASA’s Deep Space Network and then broadcasts to Mars, where the signal gets picked up by the Mars Rover. That’s how it drives.
Q: Planetary geology sounds like a good field to be in if you want to hitch a ride into space. Do you want to be an astronaut?
A: I wouldn’t say no if they asked me. Maryland native Jessica Watkins is a planetary geologist and she’s an astronaut now, in the new 2017 class.