New Horizons is speeding away from Earth at over 30,000 miles per hour, rapidly becoming one of the most distant objects humans have ever launched. The spacecraft has already visited Pluto, the farthest world any mission has ever been to, and it will arrive at another celestial body on January 1, 2019. The target this time is a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) called MU69, which just received a new name from NASA: Ultima Thule.
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Late last year, NASA ran a contest to name New Horizons’ next target. Over 34,000 names were submitted, and NASA picked a winner from among the top entries. In classical European mythology, Thule was a distant land to the North, and ‘ultima thule’ became a term used to refer to an extremely faraway place beyond the explored world. It’s fitting, then, that Ultima Thule should refer to the most distant world visited by humanity.
“Our spacecraft is heading beyond the limits of the known worlds, to what will be this mission’s next achievement,” says New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern. “Since this will be the farthest exploration of any object in space in history, I like to call our flyby target Ultima, for short, symbolizing this ultimate exploration by NASA and our team.”
Once New Horizons makes its closest approach to Ultima Thule on the first day of 2019, it will have only a few hours to take photos of the KBO before it leaves it behind forever. The spacecraft will then spend the next several years sending those photos back to Earth, where scientists can learn a great deal about the mysterious objects orbiting in the distant reaches of our solar system.