There’s a new nickname for the icy world next up for the spacecraft that explored Pluto: Ultima Thule (THOO-lee).
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is headed toward a New Year’s Day encounter with this mysterious object or two, 1 billion miles beyond Pluto on the fringes of our solar system.
Its official name is 2014 MU69. The mission team wanted a less technical and more inspiring name and, late last year, sought public input.
Announced Tuesday, the nickname comes from medieval literature and refers to a distant, unknown world.
While NASA plans to choose a formal name once its true nature is uncovered, the space agency sought suggestions from the public to nickname the target in the meantime. An artist’s impression is pictured
The team will choose a more formal name following the flyby.
New Horizons will fly past object 2014 MU69 on January 1, 2019 as part of its extended mission, after concluding its study of Pluto.
The Kuiper Belt object could be a single body, a binary pair, or even a system of many objects.
The space agency opened submissions late last year for nickname suggestions from the public ahead of its official naming.
Following in the footsteps of past crowd-sourcing efforts, however, many users unsurprisingly offered a slew of absurd proposals, including countless space-themed spin-offs of the Boaty McBoatface debacle.
Others tapped into science fiction, with many suggesting the object be called Hoth, for the icy planet home to the Rebel Alliance’s Echo base in Star Wars.
Some suggested calling the target Kirk and Picard – if it turns out to be a pair – after the Star Trek duo.
The New Horizons spacecraft ended its years-long Pluto (pictured) mission in 2015. Now, it’s on the way to an object 1 billion miles past the dwarf planet
MU69 is 4 billion miles (6.5 billion kilometers) away, and may not be just one object.
According to the space agency, it could be two objects, either stuck together or orbiting one another – or, it may be a system of many.
This, however, means two or more nicknames may be needed.
If so, two nicknames would be needed.
The nicknames, however, will be temporary, NASA says.
After the flyby, NASA will submit a formal name to the International Astronomical Union, based in part on whether the target turns out to be one, or multiple objects.
Many users suggested naming the object Hoth, for the icy planet home to the Rebel Alliance’s Echo base in Star Wars. A still from the Empire Strikes Back is pictured
WHAT’S NEXT FOR NASA’S NEW HORIZONS SPACECRAFT?
The spacecraft that gave us the first close-up views of Pluto now has a much smaller object in its sights.
New Horizons is now track to fly past a recently discovered, less than 30-mile-wide object out on the solar system frontier.
The close encounter with what’s known as 2014 MU69 would occur in 2019. It orbits nearly 1 billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto.
Nasa and the New Horizons team chose 2014 MU69 in August as New Horizons’ next potential target, thus the nickname PT-1. Like Pluto, MU69 orbits the sun in the frozen, twilight zone known as the Kuiper Belt.
This illustration provided by NASA shows the New Horizons spacecraft. The probe whipped past Pluto in 2015 and is headed to 2014 MU69 for an attempted 2019 flyby of the tiny, icy world on the edge of the solar system
MU69 is thought to be 10 times larger and 1,000 times more massive than average comets, including the one being orbited right now by Europe’s Rosetta spacecraft.
On the other end, MU69 is barely 1 percent the size of Pluto and perhaps one-ten-thousandth the mass of the dwarf planet. So the new target is a good middle ground, according to scientists.
The spacecraft was recently approved for its extended mission, allowing it to continue on its path toward the object deeper in the Kuiper Belt.
It’s expected that New Horizons will make its approach to the ancient object on January 1, 2019.
While the ballot included Mjölnir (Thor’s hammer), Camalor (fictional city in the Kuiper Belt), and Pluck & Persistence (traits of New Horizons).
‘New Horizons has always been about pure exploration, shedding light on new worlds like we’ve never seen before,’ said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, at the time.
‘Our close encounter with MU69 adds another chapter to this mission’s remarkable story.
‘We’re excited for the public to help us pick a nickname for our target that captures the excitement of the flyby and awe and inspiration of exploring this new and record-distant body in space.’