Last updated January 11, 2018 at 10:41 am
Please don’t suggest Asteroidy McAsteroidface
Having ticked a visit to Pluto off its to-do list, NASA’s long-distance travelling probe New Horizons is still shooting through the outer reaches of our solar system. Its next target is an object in the Kuiper Belt, and NASA want you to name it.
On New Years Day 2019, New Horizons will rendezvous with a small frozen object a billion kilometres past Pluto, currently named (486958) 2014 MU69. Not satisfied with that, NASA and the SETI Institute want to give it a nickname that is a little easier to remember, and have put the call out to the public for suggestions. They’ll use whatever name is chosen until after New Horizons has passed by and checked it out, after which the research team will give it a proper scientific name reflecting its characteristics.
“New Horizons has always been about pure exploration, shedding light on new worlds like we’ve never seen before,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern. “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.”
Astronomers have observed MU69 from Earth, but at a distance of more than 6.5 billion kilometres there is only so much they can see. Telescopic observations as it passed in front of a distant star hinted it could be either a binary orbiting pair or a contact (stuck together) pair of roughly equal-sized bodies – meaning the team might need two nicknames for its target.
The Kuiper Belt is a source of intrigue for astronomers and planetary scientists. Encircling the outer reaches of our solar system, it consists of a trillion or more icy bodies ranging in size from small comets to dwarf planets like Pluto. However unlike asteroids which are generally rocky, most Kuiper Belt objects are thought to be frozen volatile chemicals like methane and water. As remnants of the formation of the solar system, understanding the formation and make up of Kuiper Belt objects like MU69 could give us more evidence about the formation of planets including Earth.
To rename the object which might reveal untold secrets of our solar system, you can either vote for one of the shortlist, or suggest your own. Current favourites include Mjolnir (Thor’s hammer), Peanut, and Uluru.
The voting shortlist and form to suggest your own are on the New Horizons Frontier Worlds website, and will stay open until 7am AEDT, Saturday 2 December.
So get your thinking cap on. Maybe it’s Sylvester (Stallone, Rocky), or Vanilla (Ice). Olaf is already being considered by the team. Just don’t suggest Asteroidy McAsteroidface, ok?
Main image courtesy of NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Carlos Hernandez
Artist impression of MU69 courtesy of NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker