‘Ultima Thule’ no more: New Horizons’ space snowman is named Arrokoth

A composite image based on data from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft shows the icy Kuiper Belt object formerly known as 2014 MU69 or Ultima Thule, and now called Arrokoth. (NASA / SwRI / JHUAPL Photo)

The snowman-shaped object that NASA’s New Horizons probe flew past nearly a year ago on the solar system’s icy fringe now has a Native American name: Arrokoth, a word that means “sky” in the Powhatan/Algonquian language.

Arrokoth replaces earlier labels for the Kuiper Belt object, including the numerical designation 2014 MU69 and the nickname Ultima Thule, which turned out to be rather controversial.

Members of the New Horizons science team announced today that their proposed name has won approval by the International Astronomical Union and its Minor Planet Center.

Before making the proposal, the scientists won the consent of elders and representatives of the Powhatan Tribe — which is best-known as the home tribe for Pocahontas in the 17th century. Some present-day members of the tribe live in Maryland, which was the home base for New Horizons mission operations.

“The name ‘Arrokoth’ reflects the inspiration of looking to the skies and wondering about the stars and worlds beyond our own,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at Southwest Research Institute, said in a NASA news release. “That desire to learn is at the heart of the New Horizons mission, and we’re honored to join with the Powhatan community and people of Maryland in this celebration of discovery.”

Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, praised the choice of the name and said “we graciously accept this gift from the Powhatan people.”

In accordance with IAU naming conventions, the privilege of proposing a permanent name for a celestial body is given to its discoverers. For the 22-mile-long, two-lobed object formerly known as 2014 MU69, those would be the scientists of the New Horizons team, who identified it in 2014 using the Hubble Space Telescope.

At the time, the team was looking for a follow-up object to study in the wake of New Horizons’ 2015 flyby of Pluto and its moons. Arrokoth — 4 billion miles from Earth and 1 billion miles beyond Pluto — was chosen because it was reachable and potentially intriguing. The Jan. 1 flyby did not disappoint.

“Data from the newly named Arrokoth has given us clues about the formation of planets and our cosmic origins,” said Marc Buie, a member of the discovery team from Southwest Research Institute. “We believe this ancient body, composed of two distinct lobes that merged into one entity, may harbor answers that contribute to our understanding of the origin of life on Earth.”

The Minor Planet Center published the new name last week in its official circular and recognized the Powhatan Tribe’s connection to the Chesapeake Bay region, where the Space Telescope Science Institute and Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory are based.

“Institutions in this region played a prominent role in facilitating the discovery and exploration of this ancient and distant object,” the center’s citation noted.

“Arrokoth” generated none of the controversy that was attached to the object’s previous nickname, Ultima Thule.

Ultima Thule is a term that was used in ancient times to describe a place beyond the known world, but the phrase was adopted by Nazis and other right-wing extremists to refer to the mythical home of an “Aryan race.”

During the hubbub over January’s flyby, the New Horizons team came in for some criticism for choosing the term. At the time, Stern insisted that Ultima Thule served as a “wonderful meme for exploration.”

“Just because some bad guys once liked that term, we’re not going to let ’em hijack it,” he said. But renaming the object clears away the controversy.

Stern and the other scientists on the New Horizons team are now on the watch for yet another object in the solar system’s icy Kuiper Belt that could serve as a worthy target for a flyby.

This report has been updated to reflect the Minor Planet Center’s publication of Arrokoth as the Kuiper Belt object’s official name. Hat tip to Daniel Fischer for the additional information and link.

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