Help NASA Name the Farthest Object We've Ever Tried to Reach in Space

NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Carlos Hernandez
NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Carlos Hernandez

More than two years after NASA's New Horizons probe whisked by Pluto, the robotic spacecraft continues to zip toward the furthest edges of the solar system in pursuit of history's farthest planetary encounter. It's heading toward the Kuiper Belt, a ring-shaped region beyond Neptune's orbit that contains dwarf planets like Pluto and perhaps several hundred thousand other icy bodies. The target is a tiny world that New Horizons is scheduled to pass on New Year's Day 2019. As of now, it's simply called MU69—but NASA and the New Horizons team want you to help them come up with a more memorable moniker, the Associated Press reports.

You can cast your vote for MU69's new title in an online naming contest, which opened up to the public in November and closes on December 1, 2017, at 3 p.m. Eastern time. There's no limit to the number of votes you submit, although contest organizers request that you do so no more than once per day.

Names to chose from include Año Nuevo ("New Year" in Spanish), Pluck & Persistence, and Peanut, Almond, or Cashew, the last three of which could describe MU69's potential shape. So far, Mjölnir, a.k.a. Thor's Hammer, is in the lead, according to the latest vote tally.

Participants can also suggest new names via this form. All languages are fair game, so long as they're written using the Latin alphabet, but researchers do say they're "particularly interested in nicknames that are appropriate for the first exploration of a cold, distant, ancient world at the outer frontier of the solar system." (Religious, political, and commercial names aren't allowed.)

NASA also recommends submitting two or more names that go together, since preliminary observations have indicated that MU69 might be a binary, or two astronomical bodies harnessed together by their mutual gravitational forces. If they're a "contact binary"—meaning they're touching—only one name will be needed, but a separated pair will call for two.

Once New Horizons flies by MU69, the mission team will propose a formal name for the body to the International Astronomical Union (IAU). That said, NASA still has final say over MU69's forever title—so even if a certain submission receives the most votes, it still needs to be vetted by officials. In short, you probably can't name it Planet McPlanetface.

Still, researchers say they're excited to involve the public in the naming process and hope to land on a name "that captures the excitement of the flyby and awe and inspiration of exploring this new and record-distant body in space," said Alan Stern, principal investigator for the New Horizons team, in a statement.

[h/t Associated Press]

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Centre of Excellence
Centre of Excellence

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6 Amazing Facts About Sally Ride

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are six things you might not know about the groundbreaking astronaut, who was born on May 26, 1951.

1. Sally Ride proved there is such thing as a stupid question.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. Had she taken Billie Jean King's advice, Sally Ride might have been a professional tennis player.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. Home economics was not Sally Ride's best subject.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. Sally Ride had a strong tie to the Challenger.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. Sally Ride had no interest in cashing in on her worldwide fame.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

6. Sally Ride was the first openly LGBTQ astronaut.

Ride passed away on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61, following a long (and very private) battle with pancreatic cancer. While Ride's brief marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley was widely known to the public (they were married from 1982 to 1987), it wasn't until her death that Ride's longtime relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy—a childhood friend and science writer—was made public. Which meant that even in death, Ride was still changing the world, as she is the world's first openly LGBTQ astronaut.