After months of deliberation and voting, NASA has announced the official nickname for 2014 MU69, the space rock that will be visited by New Horizons on January 1, 2019. The object will be called Ultima Thule, after the mythical island often drawn in the extreme North of medieval maps.
The term has come to signify a distant place beyond “the borders of the known world”, providing a perfect name for the intriguing object. Ultima Thule (pronounced thoo-lee) will be the furthest object from the Sun to be examined up close by a human spacecraft.
“MU69 is humanity's next Ultima Thule,” Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement. “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 campaign to name the object wrapped up on December 6, after more than 115,000 participants from all over the world put forward more than 34,000 names. A total of 37 names reached the ballot for voting and were then evaluated for popularity. Eight names were from the New Horizons team and the remaining 29 from the public. Ultima Thule was nominated by 40 people and beat other names like Abeona, Pharos, Pangu, Rubicon, Olympus, Pinnacle, and Tiramisu.
“We are grateful to those who proposed such an interesting and inspirational nickname,” Mark Showalter, the member of the New Horizons team who led the campaign, added. “They deserve credit for capturing the true spirit of exploration that New Horizons embodies.”
While Ultima Thule is a great name, it won’t be the official designation until it is approved by the International Astronomical Union. There are specific standards to be respected when it comes to the naming of astronomical objects. The New Horizons team plans to work with the Union in 2019, after the flyby, to find a formal and permanent name for 2014 MU69.
New Horizons has already been a phenomenal mission, giving us the first detailed look at Pluto and its moons. It is currently over 6 billion kilometers (about 4 billion miles) from Earth, moving at breakneck speed towards Ultima Thule.