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. There's only one problem: the current name of the next target, (486958) 2014 MU69, doesn't exactly roll of the tongue. To help with this, NASA is boldly inviting the public to come up with some more memorable alternatives.
“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, said in a statement. “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.”
The art of naming
PT1, otherwise known as 2014 MU69, is roughly 20 miles long. It is considered an interesting target because of its status as a primordial 'cold classic Kuiper Belt object.' (Photo: New Horizons Team)
So what do we know about MU69 that can help inform the naming process? 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.
Unlike the great Boaty McBoatface naming debacle of 2016, NASA doesn't plan to christen MU69 after the entry with the most votes. Instead, nominations for nicknames will be accepted through Dec. 1 and NASA officials will review the best suggestions and make a decision in early January.
So far, the Internet appears to be embracing the spirit of the contest with names reflective of MU69's physical characteristics. Popular entries include "Mjölnir" (Thor's hammer), "Z'ha'dum" (a fictional planet in the "Babylon 5" universe), "Peanut," and "Camalor" (a fictional city in the Kuiper Belt).
To submit your own entry before the deadline, launch your browser here.