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

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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ESA/Herschel/SPIRE; M. W. L. Smith et al 2017
Look Closely—Every Point of Light in This Image Is a Galaxy
ESA/Herschel/SPIRE; M. W. L. Smith et al 2017
ESA/Herschel/SPIRE; M. W. L. Smith et al 2017

Even if you stare closely at this seemingly grainy image, you might not be able to tell there’s anything to it besides visual noise. But it's not static—it's a sliver of the distant universe, and every little pinprick of light is a galaxy.

As Gizmodo reports, the image was produced by the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory, a space-based infrared telescope that was launched into orbit in 2009 and was decommissioned in 2013. Created by Herschel’s Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (SPIRE) and Photodetector Array Camera and Spectrometer (PACS), it looks out from our galaxy toward the North Galactic Pole, a point that lies perpendicular to the Milky Way's spiral near the constellation Coma Berenices.

A close-up of a view of distant galaxies taken by the Herschel Space Observatory
ESA/Herschel/SPIRE; M. W. L. Smith et al 2017

Each point of light comes from the heat of dust grains between different stars in a galaxy. These areas of dust gave off this radiation billions of years before reaching Herschel. Around 1000 of those pins of light belong to galaxies in the Coma Cluster (named for Coma Berenices), one of the densest clusters of galaxies in the known universe.

The longer you look at it, the smaller you’ll feel.

[h/t Gizmodo]

Why Do Astronauts Use Space Pens Instead of Pencils?

by Alex Carter

It's often said that NASA spent millions of dollars developing a pen that could write in zero gravity, while the Russians just used pencils. It was a warning about looking for a high-tech solution to a mundane problem, of American excess vs. Russian sensibility.

It's also entirely false.

To understand why NASA was so keen on a workable space pen, you have to understand that the pencil is not suited for space travel. The problem is that they have a habit of breaking, shattering, and leaving graphite dust behind. The wood, too, can make it a serious fire risk in the pressurized, oxygen-rich capsule. All of these common issues become life-threatening hazards in space.

Still, there were attempts to bring pencils into space. In 1965, the agency famously ordered 34 specially designed mechanical pencils in hopes of finding the perfect writing tool for astronauts. But at $128 each, they weren't exactly cheap, and it only got worse when the public got wind of the price. Thankfully, an alternative was not too far behind.

Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
NASA

The Space Pen was invented by Paul Fisher, head of Fisher Pen Company. Unlike a typical pen, the Fisher Space Pen uses compressed nitrogen to force ink out of the nozzle, instead of using gravity to make it flow. This made it the ideal device for writing in space, while upside down, or submerged underwater. It wrote crisp and clean, without the safety concerns of a pencil.

Fisher contacted NASA to give his pens a try in 1965 and in 1967, after months of testing, they were impressed enough to bulk buy 400 of them for future missions. Contrary to those urban legends, NASA didn't commission the pen or contribute any funding to it. The Soviets soon ditched their grease pencils and were eventually buying the same Fisher pens as NASA, too. The price? After a 40 percent discount from Fisher, both space agencies were paying $2.39 a pen.

The Fisher Space Pens made their debut in 1968 on the Apollo 7 mission and have been involved in all manned missions since.

So, the short reason is that astronauts only used pencils when they were waiting for something better to come along. As soon as it did, they switched and never looked back. Even the Russians thought it was a good idea.

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