Nasa and Seti (Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence Institute) have called on public votes to help choose a nickname for a large rock which is set to be analysed in their next flyby mission far outside the solar system.
Nasa's New Horizons spacecraft has been flying further away from the solar system since it made its historic flyby past Pluto two years ago. Since then, it has travelled millions of kilometres towards the Kuiper Belt – a massive disc of rocks, ice and other exoplanets far outside the solar system.
By New Year's Day 2019, New Horizons is scheduled to make a flyby past a large Kuiper Belt object (KBO), revealed Nasa. The rock is officially called 2014 MU69, or MU69, but the space agency wants to give it a catchier nickname and has asked people to come forward with suggestions.
MU69 is 1.6 billion kilometres from Pluto, noted Nasa.
As of now, Nasa has said that they are not sure if MU69 is a single body, a binary pair or a cluster of rocks. Once the flyby takes place and they get all the required details, they are planning to submit an official title to the International Astronomical Union. The nickname chosen through the voting process will be its working name till then, Nasa explained.
Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado said, "New Horizons has always been about pure exploration, shedding light on new worlds like we've never seen before. Our close encounter with MU69 adds another chapter to this mission's remarkable story.
"We're excited for the public to help us pick a nickname for our target that captures the excitement of the flyby, and the awe and inspiration of exploring this new and record-distant body in space."
Public voting for the name can be done at the Seti site, and at the time of writing, "Mjolnir" had the highest votes. According to Norse mythology, Mjolnir is Thor's hammer.
Apart from simply voting, it is also possible to submit new name suggestions. The campaign to collect votes ends on December 1, 2017 and the winner will be announced in January 2018.
The ballot is looking for names that fully encapsulate both the mission and the spirit of discovery that it represents, said Nasa in a report. The campaign is open for voting by everyone, the report added. "We are hoping that somebody out there proposes the perfect, inspiring name for MU69," said Mark Showalter of the New Horizons science team.
This is not the first time that Nasa has held an open ballot for suggestions from the public. Earlier this year, a message of hope was voted for and sent out to Voyager 1, which right now is the furthest of any man-made object in the galaxy from the Earth.