NASA’s New Horizons probe has a New Year’s Day date with a faint, oddly shaped, ice-covered object 4 billion miles away.
The intrepid spacecraft has been sailing through the cold void of space for more than a decade, and it hasn’t had a close encounter with another object since it left Pluto in 2015. For more than two years, but for a few distant glimpses of rocks hundreds of millions of miles away, all New Horizons has had to look forward to is this rendezvous at the solar system’s outermost edge.
And when the probe zips past on Jan. 1, 2019, the object will become the most distant object ever to be explored by spacecraft.
There’s only one problem. It doesn’t have a name.
Correction: It doesn’t have a good name. Right now, it goes by (486958) 2014 MU69, an unwieldy amalgam that indicates its number in the minor-planet catalogue and when it was found. Alan Stern, the principle investigator for New Horizons, called that name a “license-plate designator” – way too much of a mouthful for a first meeting. This month, NASA set up an online campaign to solicit nicknames for the object.
The space agency started things off with a few suggestions, including “Pluck,” and the names of several types of nut – “A contact binary is often shaped like a peanut,” NASA explains. “If other bodies are found, we can name them after the type of nut they most closely resemble.”
No wonder they need your help.
You can submit your suggestion at www.frontierworlds.org or vote for one of the names already being considered. Polls close on Dec. 1. To ensure this doesn’t become another Boaty McBoatface situation, NASA hasn’t guaranteed that it will go with the most popular option. Instead, the agency and the New Horizons team will review the names with the most votes and choose their favorite.
After the flyby, NASA will work to formalize the object’s new designation with the International Astronomical Union, which oversees the naming of all celestial objects. (You may remember the IAU as the organization responsible for Pluto’s demotion from planet to dwarf planet in 2006.)
NASA doesn’t know much about (486958) 2014 MU69, aka Pluck, aka Peanut, aka Rocky McRockface – that’s the whole point of sending New Horizons to study it. It is a Kuiper Belt object – an inhabitant of the wide, frozen disk of debris that encircles the outer solar system – and it was discovered in 2014 during a Hubble Space Telescope survey aimed at pinpointing a suitable new target for New Horizons once it was finished at Pluto. It’s tiny (about 25 miles across) and far away (about a billion miles farther from Earth than Pluto).
In the summer, astronomers spotted the object’s shadow as it moved in front of a distant star, a phenomenon known as an occultation. The observations revealed that the object probably consists of two smaller bodies that are closely orbiting or stuck together.
“This means we are very probably going to a primordial binary in the Kuiper Belt, a 4-billion-year-old relic of solar system formation and an exotic building block of the small planets of the Kuiper Belt like Pluto, Ixion, Makemake, Sedna and Eris,” Stern wrote in a blog post.