Having delighted the world with its unprecedented and jaw-dropping photos of Pluto in the summer of 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is en route for an encore performance with an icy Kuiper Belt object in 2019.
The celestial target is officially named (486958) 2014 MU69, and it doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue. To help with this, NASA invited the public to come up with some more memorable alternatives.
NASA decided on ‘Ultima Thule.’ In medieval times, ultima thule meant any distant place located beyond the borders of the known world.
“MU69 is humanity’s next Ultima Thule,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator. “Our spacecraft is heading beyond the limits of the known worlds, to what will be this mission’s next achievement. Since this will be the farthest exploration of any object in space in history, I like to call our flyby target Ultima, for short, symbolizing this ultimate exploration by NASA and our team.”
The art of naming
Artist’s impression of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft encountering 2014 MU69, a Kuiper Belt object that orbits one billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto, on Jan. 1, 2019. (Photo: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Steve Gribben)
So what do we know about MU69? According to observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, the object is elongated, with two distinct lobes spanning a distance of some 20 miles. It’s orbital period around the sun is just under 300 years and is relatively unperturbed; a characteristic that points to this being a “cold classical Kuiper Belt object,” or one that has changed little since its formation.
If all goes according to plan, New Horizons will cross paths with MU69 on Jan. 1, 2019, at a distance less than 2,200 miles –– three times closer than its previous flyby with Pluto. After the flyby, NASA will choose a formal name “based in part on whether MU69 is found to be a single body, a binary pair, or perhaps a system of multiple objects.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in November 2017.