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Nickname New Horizons’ next target

The craft that flew by Pluto in 2015 is heading for the Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69. NASA and the New Horizons spacecraft team want you to help nickname it.

Artist’s concept of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft streaking past 2014 MU69 – which might be 2 objects orbiting each other – on January 1, 2019. Image via Carlos Hernandez/ NASA.

New Horizons is the craft that flew past Pluto and its moons in July of 2015, forever changing our perceptions of those distant worlds. Now the craft is zooming toward its next target, some billion miles (1.6 billion km) past Pluto, due for a flyby on New Year’s Day 2019. This next target – a Kuiper Belt object designated 2014 M69 – made headlines last summer when it occulted, or passed in front of, some stars, causing telltale dips in the stars’ light. Analysis of the light suggested 2014 MU69 has a weird shape. It might be very elongated, or it might be two objects – maybe a binary orbiting pair, or a contact (stuck together) pair, with each tiny body only about 12 miles (20 km) across. This week (November 6, 2017), the team made another cool announcement. It said it’s looking for your ideas on an informal name for 2014 MU69.

The SETI Institute in Mountain View, California is hosting the naming campaign, which is being led by Mark Showalter, a member of the New Horizons science team.

Go to the website to see names currently under consideration; site visitors can also vote for their favorites or nominate names they think should be added to the ballot. Showalter said in a statement:

The campaign is open to everyone. We are hoping that somebody out there proposes the perfect, inspiring name for MU69.

The campaign will close at 3 p.m. EST/noon PST on December 1, 2017. NASA and the New Horizons team will review the top vote-getters and announce their selection in early January, 2018.

Here are 2 possibilties for the shape of 2014 MU69. It might be highly elongated and up to 30 km long (as depicted at left) or a binary body whose halves are each about 15 to 20 km across. Image via NASA/ JHU-APL/ SwRI/ Alex Parker.

Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said:

New Horizons has always been about pure exploration, shedding light on new worlds like we’ve never seen before. 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.

Showalter added:

Many Kuiper Belt Objects have had informal names at first, before a formal name was proposed. 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!

View larger. | New Horizons, heading out of the solar system, has been given the nod for an extended mission to 2014 MU69. Astronomers are trying to learn all they can about this little body in the Kuiper Belt before the spacecraft’s January 1, 2019 encounter.

Bottom line: To submit your suggested names for New Horizons’ next target – designated 2014 MU69 – and to vote for favorites, go to: http://frontierworlds.seti.org

Deborah Byrd

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