NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which famously flew by Pluto in 2015, is now heading toward a very old, icy object at the edge of the Solar System — and the space agency wants your help in giving this world a new nickname.
The probe’s new destination is an object in the Kuiper Belt — the large cloud of small bodies that orbit beyond Neptune — and the space rock’s name is, to put it bluntly, a mess. The official title is (486958) 2014 MU69, a bunch of numbers that ultimately refer to when the object was discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope. It’s a bit of a nightmare to type and say out loud, so having a more eloquent nickname will be much more fun and incredibly helpful (especially for a certain space reporter you may know).
Now, you can suggest nicknames on a website hosted by the SETI Institute of Mountain View, California. But don’t worry, this won’t turn into another Boaty McBoatface situation. Members of the public can nominate names, and then officials will select their favorite submissions and put them up for vote. People can also check to see which names are getting the most love over the next month.
Eventually, the New Horizons team will be submitting a formal name to the International Astronomical Union, the association that determines the official designations to planets, stars, asteroids, and other celestial bodies. That’s going to happen after New Horizons flies by the object on January 1st, 2019, since astronomers aren’t quite sure if 2014 MU69 is one object — or two. In July, the New Horizons team briefly spotted 2014 MU69 as it passed in front of a star. Based on their observations, they found that the object is either shaped really strangely, like a rubber ducky, or is in fact two objects orbiting one another. So the team is waiting to know exactly what the object is before submitting a formal name, or names.
But until an official title is given, we'll have the unofficial nickname we can use. Submissions will be accepted through 3PM ET on December 1st, and a selection will be made in early January — one year before New Horizons meets up with 2014 MU69 (or whatever new name we’ll be calling it soon).