Far out exploration space-craft New Horizons has a new destination. In 2019, the flying science experiment is due to meet up with Ultima Thule. Otherwise known as 2014 MU69, the Kuiper Belt object orbits the Sun at around one billion miles from Pluto. All Kuiper Belt objects are found beyond the range of the main planets, however Ultima Thule luckily lies in the same flight path of our clever hand-made meteor.
The New Horizons probe was originally sent to examine Pluto in 2006. It got there in great time, thanks to a boost from Jupiter's gravity in 2007. It has delivered a stunning selection of images which enthrall astronomers and space fans around the world. Now that the craft has flown past the planetoid, the new destination was chosen to further build on our understanding of this outback part of our solar system.
No scientist has ever taken data from such a distant object up close, only our telescopes give us clues about what can be found beyond. This fly-by will give us an immediate view of the distant object which gives us much more data to read. The new nick-name for MU69 was decided by a write in system. Over a hundred-thousand people wrote in with suggestions, and after much debate the name Ultima Thule was chosen. It wasn't the most popular name, which was in fact the name of Thor's hammer Mjolnir. Perhaps unsuitable for this small rock over a billion miles away, Ultima Thule ranked in at seventh just above Tiramisu.
The name is historical, and it means Beyond the Known World. In antiquity, it has been used as a name for the British Isles, Norway and Iceland. Now adopted for the next thing in distant places we can just about get to, it does seem fitting. A permanent name will be chosen once the data has been collected in 2019. With billions of known but unnamed objects in the catalogue, perhaps there could be a way of giving everyone a chance to put their name on the map.
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