By Jeff Babbitt ’96
When Kirby Runyon ’08 was a kid, Pluto was a planet. You remember Pluto, right? In the acronym taught to elementary kids to help them memorize the (then) nine planets, Pluto stood for “Pizzas.” (“My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas.”) Pluto became the talk of the astronomical world in 2006 when its distinction as a planet was called into question. The little-planet-that-could was eventually demoted to the un-esteemed status of “dwarf planet” by the International Astronomical Union, “the self-proclaimed authority in naming stuff,” accuses Kirby.
Now in the PhD candidate stage of his doctoral research in planetary geology at Johns Hopkins University, Kirby promotes a geologist’s planetary definition—namely, that any round body less massive than a star is a planet, including our Moon. (If you’re keeping track at home, that’s at least 118 planets in our solar system—most of which are beyond Neptune. But you don’t have to memorize all of them!) And so the Pluto debate continues to this day. #plutolives
This is the stuff Kirby loves, talking about anything and everything related to space. In fact, he doesn’t remember a time when he wasn’t fascinated by the stars. As a three year old, this future member of the New Horizons mission to Pluto visited the Michigan Space and Science Center, where he remembers seeing the Apollo 9 Command Module that flew in Earth’s orbit in 1969 with Rusty Schweickart, Dave Scott and Michigan native Jim McDivitt aboard. This venerable spacecraft sparked Kirby’s desire to travel to distant worlds far beyond his home of Spring Arbor, Michigan.
Kirby’s interplanetary voyage included a stop in Houghton, New York, where he enrolled at Houghton College as a physics major with designs toward a PhD in astrophysics. As so often happens with students at Houghton, Kirby’s trajectory was altered. He proudly proclaims, “I was a good student at Houghton” and continues a little less proudly, but honestly, “I just wasn’t a very good physics major.” Fellow physics student Kurt Aikens ’09 says, “Kirby really willed himself through the physics program. He worked incredibly hard. And his passion for all things space was infectious.”
Dr. Mark Yuly, Houghton professor of physics, also recalls Kirby’s determination and enthusiasm, from wearing space-themed t-shirts most days to updating everyone he met on the latest news from NASA and the solar system. “Nothing was going to dissuade Kirby from achieving his aspirations. I’m really proud of him,” beams Yuly. “It’s really awesome what he’s done and how he has persevered to get where he is today.”
Eventually, Kirby gravitated toward planetary geology, a field where he feels quite at home—and home is the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, a research facility that, among other things, builds and runs spacecraft for NASA.
One such spacecraft is the New Horizons space probe, which launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on January 19, 2006. Kirby remembers watching the launch online from his student office at Houghton in the Paine Center for Science. Fast forward 3,463 days to July 14, 2015. As part of the New Horizons geology team tasked with interpreting images of the planet’s surface, Kirby stood among a crowd of fellow researchers and space enthusiasts at the Pluto Flyby Press Conference as the first high resolution images were transmitted to Earth (at a “whopping” 1-2kb/second). Among the crowd, Kirby met Brian May, lead guitarist of the rock band Queen, who just so happens to hold a PhD in astrophysics.
Besides his involvement in the groundbreaking Pluto mission, Kirby’s daily research as a planetary geologist is varied. He currently uses a “James Bond-caliber surveillance camera” orbiting Mars (a.k.a., HiRISE—High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) to understand the planet’s winds and their affects on sand dune migration. He also conducts lab experiments with a “human-sized mousetrap” used to replicate and research impact crater ejecta emplacement—in layman’s terms: how stuff dug out of craters affects planetary landscapes’ geology.
Kirby is a planetary geologist by day and a self-proclaimed space science geek by night. His free-time pursuits include devouring the best science fiction television series (Battlestar Galactica); catching the opening of The Martian, the most recent big budget Hollywood sci-fi flick; and teaching an annual Sunday school class on the intersection of science and faith. “Kirby recently volunteered to be a spacesuit tester for NASA,” shares Kurt, “and all on his own dime. Apparently, NASA wants feedback on their spacesuits from folks with experience in field geology—and Kirby fits the bill!” Kirby confirms the spacesuit rumor and adds something he hasn’t confided to Kurt just yet: “In February, I’m scheduled to be a centrifuge test subject at NASTAR (National AeroSpace Training and Research Center) that looks at how relatively healthy individuals cope with the accelerations common in spaceflight.”
Kirby has come full circle since his childhood visit to the science museum where his face beamed from behind a cardboard cutout of a NASA spacesuit. Wide-eyed and wonderstruck, a young Kirby Runyon looked up into the heavens and dreamed. Today, he looks at those same heavens—and he sees. “My work allows me to see the beauty and majesty of creation,” says Kirby. “In Genesis 1:31, God surveyed all that he had created and called it ‘very good.’ The surface of the Moon is part of creation—the Sun and the stars are part of God’s ‘very good’ creation—so they’re definitely worth our money and time to study.” Kirby concludes, “I take a ton of pleasure in what I do, rejoicing each day in what God made.”
Jeff Babbitt ’96 is the Director of Marketing & Communications at Houghton College. He resides in Fillmore, NY with his wife, Angela (Keppen ’98), and their four children.