Public invited to vote on nicknames for New Horizons’ next target
With just a little over a year remaining until New Horizons’ flyby of 2014 MU69, NASA is asking the public for help in choosing a nickname for the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO).
A naming campaign much like that done for features on Pluto and its moons in 2015 is being organized by the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, led by SETI fellow and New Horizons science team member Mark Showalter.
“New Horizons made history with the first close-up look at Pluto, and is now on course for the farthest planetary encounter in the history of spaceflight,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “We’re pleased to bring the public along on this exciting mission of discovery.”
MU69 is located approximately one billion miles (1.6 billion km) beyond Pluto and four billion miles (6.5 km) from Earth. It was discovered in 2014 by New Horizons scientists who used the Hubble Space Telescope to find a second target for the spacecraft.
It is approximately 1,000 times bigger than Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, which was orbited by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft but 500,000 times less massive than Pluto.
Observations of MU69 conducted this past summer, when it occulted or passed in front, of a star, suggest it could be a double-lobed object like Comet 67P, a swarm of objects, or a binary system comprised of two objects.
Participants in the naming project can either vote for one of eight names selected by the mission team and/or from a growing list of names submitted by others. They can also submit and vote for a name of their choice.
Everyone can vote once per day until the project ends on December 1 at 3:00 p.m. EST / noon PST at the site, Frontier Worlds.
Viewers can also see a current ranking of name choices at the site.
The selections chosen by mission scientists include “Ano Nuevo”, which commemorates the flyby date of January 1, 2019; “Mjölnir”, the name of Thor’s hammer in Norse mythology; “Camalor”, a fictional Kuiper Belt City in Robert L. Forward’s 1993 novel Camelot 30K; and “Pluck and Persistence”, which are attributes of the New Horizons mission and also recognition that MU69 might be a binary.
Among names nominated by participants is “Pangu”, which some Chinese mythologies recognize as the first ever living being.
“The campaign is open to everyone. We are hoping that somebody out there proposes the perfect, inspiring name for MU69,” Showalter said.
After the voting ends, mission team members will choose the winner from those with the highest number of votes. The winning name or names will be announced in early January.
Following the flyby, when more is known about MU69, including whether it is more than one object, members of the New Horizons mission team will work with the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to select a formal name for it.
“Many Kuiper Belt Objects have had informal names at first before a formal name was proposed,” Showalter noted. “After the flyby, once we know a lot more about this intriguing world, we and NASA will work with the International Astronomical Union to assign a formal name to MU69. Until then, we’re excited to bring people into the mission and share in what will be an amazing flyby on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, 2019!”
If the spacecraft has sufficient fuel after the MU69 flyby, it may visit yet another Kuiper Belt Object adding another extension to a mission that continues to exceed expectations.
“New Horizons has always been about pure exploration, shedding light on new worlds like we’ve never seen before,” said Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.
“Our close encounter with MU69 adds another chapter to this mission’s remarkable story. We’re pleased to bring the public along on this exciting mission of discovery.”
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.