We’ve known since summer 2015 that NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft would be tasked with a mission to investigate 2014 MU69, a space object located about 1.5 billion kilometers from Pluto, where New Horizons previously completed a flyby. The completion of that mission is now only months away, and ahead of it comes a proper nickname chosen by NASA for the target: Ultima Thule.
The NASA spacecraft will pass by Ultima Thule on January 1, 2019, making it the most distant object that humans have ever observed up close. That fact hints at why the team chose the name Ultima Thule, which is a medieval-era term that means “beyond the known world.” Talking about that is Alan Stern, New Horizons’ principal investigator, who said, “MU69 is humanity’s next Ultima Thule.”
The space agency put out a call for public input on the name back in early November 2017. In its request, NASA asked the public to help come up with a nickname for 2014 MU69 that is more appealing than its proper “(486958) 2014 MU69” moniker. This nickname will give the space agency and public alike something to call the celestial body, but it won’t be its final name.
As NASA had explained at the time, the space agency will ultimately come up with a formal name after the flyby has been completed. That name will be partly determined by what NASA learns about MU69, such as whether it is a single body or binary pair. That formal name will then be submitted to the International Astronomical Union.
Until that time, however, NASA says we’ll officially refer to 2014 MU69 as Ultima Thule. According to NASA, about 115,000 people had participated in the nicknaming campaign launched in November. A total of 29 finalist nicknames had been selected from about 39,000 suggestions.