NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI / Steve Gribben
New Horizons is moving away from Earth at more than 30,000 miles per hour, quickly becoming one of the most distant objects that humans have launched. The spacecraft has already visited Pluto, the farthest world in which a mission has been, and will arrive at another celestial body on January 1, 2019. The objective this time is a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) called MU69, that just received a new name from NASA: Ultima Thule.
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Late last year, NASA held a contest to name the next New Horizons target. More than 34,000 names were sent, and NASA chose a winner among the main entries. In classical European mythology, Thule was a land far to the north, and last thule. it became a term used to refer to an extremely distant place beyond the explored world. It is appropriate, then, that Ultima Thule refers to the farthest world visited by humanity.
"Our spacecraft is going beyond the boundaries of known worlds, to what will be the next achievement of this mission," says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern. "Since this will be the furthest exploration of any object in space in history, I like to call our aerial goal Ultima, for short, which symbolizes this ultimate exploration of NASA and our team."
Once New Horizons makes its biggest Ultima Thule approach on the first day of 2019, it will have only a few hours to take photos of the KBO before leaving it behind forever. The spacecraft will spend the next few years sending those photos to Earth, where scientists can learn a lot about the mysterious objects that orbit in the far reaches of our solar system.