New Horizons’ next target nicknamed Ultima Thule
Following a public naming campaign that drew 115,000 participants, NASA’s New Horizons team has selected the name Ultima Thule for the spacecraft’s second target, Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) 2014 MU69, which the probe is scheduled to fly past on New Year’s Day 2019.
Pronounced ultima thoolee, this name was nominated by more than 40 participants in the campaign, which ran from early November through December 6 of last year.
Initially scheduled to end on December 1, the project was extended five days due to high levels of participation.
Ultima means “beyond,” and Thule is a mythical island in the far north that appears in medieval literature and maps. Together, the name means “beyond Thule” and represents the fact that this object, located one billion miles beyond Pluto, will be the most distant one to ever be visited by a spacecraft.
It is also the most primitive object to be observed by any probe, composed of pristine materials from the solar system’s earliest days.
“MU69 is humanity’s next Ultima Thule. 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,” noted New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.
The naming campaign was launched jointly by the New Horizons team and the SETI Institute of Mountain View, California, led by Mark Showalter, a SETI Institute fellow and member of the mission’s science team.
A similar naming campaign for features on Pluto and its five moons was run jointly by the New Horizons mission and the SETI Institute in 2015 in anticipation of the July 14, 2015, Pluto flyby.
A total of 115,000 people from all over the world nominated 34,000 possible names for MU69, for which people could vote. Of those 34,000 names, the 37 that received the most votes were placed on a ballot for a next round of voting. Eight of these 37 were nominated by the New Horizons team and 29 by members of the public.
The 29 public entries were then assigned preferences based on the number of votes each one received. After Ultima Thule, which was nominated by 40 members of the public and subsequently received the most votes, top vote recipients included Abeona, Pharos, Pangu, Rubicon, Olympus, Pinnacle, and Tiramisu.
Viewers can see the final vote count at the SETI Institute‘s Frontier Worlds page.
Following New Horizons‘ encounter with MU69, which may be a binary system, an object with two lobes, or a swarm of objects, the mission team will select a formal name to submit to the International Astronomical Union (IAU).
“We are grateful to those who proposed such an interesting and inspirational nickname,” Showalter emphasized. “They deserve credit for capturing the true spirit of exploration that New Horizons embodies.”
Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.