On New Year’s Day 2019, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will fly past a small, frozen object in the Kuiper Belt. The tiny explorer’s target is a Kuiper Belt object (KBO) called ‘(486958) 2014 MU69,’ or MU69 for short and NASA is inviting you to give it a nickname.

“New Horizons made history two years ago with the first close-up look at Pluto, and is now on course for the farthest planetary encounter in the history of spaceflight,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “We’re pleased to bring the public along on this exciting mission of discovery.”  

The nickname given by the public will be used as an interim name for MU69. After the flyby, NASA and the New Horizons project will choose a formal name for the object based on whether it is found to be a single body, a binary pair or perhaps a system of multiple objects. The name will then be submitted to the International Astronomical Union.

SETI Institute of Mountain View, California inspired the idea to collect names from the public for New Horizon’s latest target. The mission website already has a list of shortlisted names currently under consideration. People can vote for their favorites or nominate names they think should be added to the ballot.

“The campaign is open to everyone,” Mark Showalter, an institute fellow and member of the New Horizons science team said. “We are hoping that somebody out there proposes the perfect, inspiring name for MU69,” he added.

“The campaign will close at 3 p.m. EST/noon PST on Dec. 1. NASA and the New Horizons team will review the top vote-getters and announce their selection in early January,” according to a release by NASA.

As far as we know, MU69, which is more than 4 billion miles from Earth, could either be a binary orbiting pair or a contact pair of nearly like-sized bodies stuck together. The team has kept this title interim because of the uncertainty in the type of target.

“New Horizons has always been about pure exploration, shedding light on new worlds like we’ve never seen before,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

When the team encounters MU69, it would check another milestone for the New Horizon mission. The team feels the latest mission adds another great accomplishment in the tiny explorer’s repertoire and wants to add excitement to the flyby by asking the public to pick a nickname for a distant world.

“Many Kuiper Belt Objects have had informal names at first, before a formal name was proposed. After the flyby, once we know a lot more about this intriguing world, we and NASA will work with the International Astronomical Union to assign a formal name to MU69,” Showalter said in the report. “Until then, we’re excited to bring people into the mission and share in what will be an amazing flyby on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, 2019!”