Science & Technology

Help NASA and New Horizons nickname the icy world they’re targeting after Pluto

2014 MU69 just won’t cut it, so NASA and the folks behind the New Horizons mission want you to help pick out a cooler nickname for the icy object that’s in their sights for New Year’s Day in 2019.

The contest is the latest suggest-a-name campaign from New Horizons’ scientists, who provided a similar suggestion box for the moons that were discovered during the run-up to the mission’s momentous Pluto flyby in 2015.

That earlier contest eventually led to the naming of the Plutonian moons Styx and Kerberos (but alas, not Vulcan, the people’s choice).

Now the piano-sized New Horizons spacecraft is gearing up for that 2019 encounter with 2014 MU69, an icy world (or pair of worlds) that lies a billion miles beyond Pluto in the solar system’s Kuiper Belt.

“New Horizons made history two years ago with the first close-up look at Pluto, and is now on course for the farthest planetary encounter in the history of spaceflight,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said today in a news release. “We’re pleased to bring the public along on this exciting mission of discovery.”

The new naming contest is being hosted by the California-based SETI Institute, which organized the moon-naming campaign as well as an effort to come up with names for Pluto’s geological features.

Visitors to the contest website,, can choose from a selection of names on an online ballot, or suggest their own contenders. Let the record show that I call dibs on “Imix,” a Maya crocodile god that symbolizes new beginnings and the start of the calendar.

Voting will be open until noon PT on Dec. 1. NASA and the New Horizons team will review the top vote-getters and announce their selection in early January.

2014 MU69’s alphanumeric name merely reflects the date of its discovery, which was made three years ago when the New Horizons team was looking for a follow-up to the Pluto flyby. In a blog entry, SETI Institute astronomer Mark Showalter compared 2014 MU69 to a generic auto license plate.

“The time has come to personalize the license plate for this frontier world,” he said.

The winning nickname will be used to refer to 2014 MU69 until well after New Horizons flies past.

Mission scientists will propose an official name to the International Astronomical Union once they have a better picture of the object — which is currently thought to be a binary pair of mutually orbiting mini-worlds, or two chunks of ice and rock that are stuck together, or one chunk with a big bite taken out of it.

That official name will have to follow the IAU’s naming rules, which generally require Kuiper Belt objects to be named after creation gods or mythological figures of the underworld. (Like, ahem, Imix.)

It’s not uncommon to start out with a whimsical nickname and then replace it with a more serious-sounding official name. For example, the discoverers of the dwarf planet Eris started out calling it “Xena” (in honor of the TV warrior princess as well as the fabled Planet X). Another dwarf planet, Makemake, was initially known as “Easterbunny” (because it was first spotted just a few days after Easter).

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