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Exploring Ultima Thule: New Horizons' Next Target MU69 Gets Mythical Nickname

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Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69 finally has a nickname that rolls easier off the tongue. After gathering public input, NASA and the New Horizons team chose Ultima Thule, a metaphor derived from the name of an ancient Greek island.

During the medieval period, Greek mapmakers believed in the existence of a mythical island found at the northernmost end of the Earth known as Thule.

It was first mentioned in writings between 330 and 20 BC by the explorer Pytheas, who was also the first to discover the moon's effect on the ocean. He claimed that the island was situated past north of Scotland and that it had sunless winters as well as the shortest daytime.

Though modern scientists were able to come up with some calculations pointing to a Norwegian island, there is still no definitive proof of Thule's exact location. Basically, it remains unknown up to this day.

From this tale, the term "Ultima Thule" came to be. It literally means "beyond Thule" and is therefore used to describe strange places lying "beyond the borders of the known world."

Why Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69 Is The Next Ultima Thule

The New Horizons spacecraft is traveling billions of miles outside Pluto on Jan. 1, 2019 to reach its next flyby target, MU69, which will become the oldest and the farthest object ever explored in all of aerospace history.

"MU69 is humanity's next Ultima Thule," says New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern in an official statement, March 13. "Our spacecraft is heading beyond the limits of the known worlds, to what will be this mission's next achievement."

Similar to the ancient island, MU69 is also a huge mystery to NASA astronomers. Little is known about its size, shape, and orbit because it has only been studied through its fleeting shadow during a few occultations.

The KBO was previously thought to either be a cluster comprised of smaller objects or a binary model with two objects orbiting each other. Astronomers favored the second theory, but they later modified it. After another occultation, they concluded that the other object is likely to be a smaller moon.

Other Nicknames Nominated For KBO 2014 MU69

Ultima Thule was not the most popular entry in the nickname campaign hosted by the SETI Institute. It only ranked seventh.

Topping the list Mjolnir, which means "Thor's hammer," followed by Z'ha'dum, which is the name of a fictional planet. On third place is peanut, almond, or cashew, depending on which nut the KBO will best resemble.

Nonetheless, none of these top-voting nominations made it, as the winning entry was chosen for its suitability and not for the number of votes it has.

KBOs commonly get nicknames before they are officially labeled by the International Astronomical Union. MU69's formal name will be proposed after the 2019 New Horizons flyby.

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