As we go about our business, the New Horizons spacecraft continues its merry way beyond Pluto, alone several billion kilometers from the Earth. However, it is getting closer to her next target: “Ultima Thule”.
In July 2015, NASA’s New Horizons mission made history by becoming the first to fly over Pluto. Since then, the program has been extended. The probe is now making its way to the outer solar system to explore some Kuiper Belt objects (KBO), hoping to learn more about the formation and evolution of our Universe. By January 1, 2019, it will reach her first destination: the object normally known as the 2014 MU69, which with the help of the public has been nicknamed “Ultima Thule”. This object, which orbits our Sun at a distance of about 1.6 billion km beyond Pluto, will be the most primitive object ever observed by a spacecraft. It will also be the most distant meeting ever made in the history of space exploration.
2014 MU69 was selected in 2015 by the NASA team due to the huge research opportunities it presents. The object is indeed old and fixed on the same orbit since its formation. And futhermore, this operation will cost less fuel, it is easier to reach than other candidate targets. Originally, the object was supposed to be just a small spherical piece of ice and rock. However in August 2017, new observations made by telescopes in Argentina led the team to conclude that 2014 MU69 was actually much larger than expected.
Given the importance of the imminent meeting of New Horizons with this object, it was therefore fair that it be baptized a “real” name. The campaign to name this object was launched by NASA and the New Horizons team in early November. 115,000 participants from around the world nominated 34,000 names — of which 37 were selected for a final vote based on their popularity. These included eight names proposed by the New Horizons team and 29 chosen by the public. The team then reduced their selection to these 29 names and indicated their preferences among the most appreciated.
The campaign finally ended on December 6th. And Ultima Thule had the most votes. In medieval literature and cartography, Thule was a mythical island, very far north. Ultima Thule can thus be translated as “which is beyond the borders of the known world”. This name is highly appropriate since exploration of such an object has never been done before. “We are grateful to those who have offered such an interesting and inspiring nickname,” noted NASA. “They deserve to be rewarded for capturing the true spirit of exploration embodied in New Horizons.”