At the very beginning of 2019, New Horizons will be stopping at an even more distant target in the solar system’s Kuiper Belt, which is full of asteroids and dwarf planets (like Pluto) and other small bodies. That target is an object officially called MU69 that was first discovered about a billion miles past Pluto back in 2014, but NASA decided it would need a fancier name because of its newfound significance.
And after hosting a public vote, NASA has finally settled on the nickname “Ultima Thule,” which roughly translates to “beyond the borders of the known world” and is based on a mythical far-northern island in European folklore. It’s a fitting name for one of the most distant objects we’ve ever visited, and on top of that, it sounds cool.
— NASA New Horizons (@NASANewHorizons) March 13, 2018
That public naming competition wrapped up back in December, but it had over 34,000 different entries when the public submissions closed. This being the internet, many of those were most certainly ridiculous names, but NASA picked a number of finalists including Ultima Thule, Abeona, Pharos, Pangu, Rubicon, Olympus, Pinnacle and Tiramisu (they let a couple silly names slip through).
According to New Horizons’ principal investigator Alan Stern, who said the following in an official statement from NASA:
“MU69 is humanity’s next Ultima Thule. 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.”
When New Horizons does finally reach Ultima Thule, it’ll take a long time for the photos and data it records to come back to Earth. But new messages from New Horizons are always fascinating, whether it’s pictures of Pluto or the farthest images from Earth ever taken.
The New Horizons probe is on track to eventually leave our solar system entirely, building up the necessary escape velocity to do so as it joins the ranks of the now interstellar Voyager 1 probe.
But the Kuiper Belt is absolutely full of things to explore, so the probe will be kept busy until that day comes.