Last January, NASA’s New Horizons probe flew past an icy space rock designated nearly four billion miles beyond Pluto. The rock, dubbed 2014 MU69, is the most distant cosmic body ever surveyed by a human spacecraft. At the time, the team nicknamed the object Ultima Thule after a mythical northern land beyond the borders of the known world. But the name didn’t stick due to its usage in Nazi ideology.
This week, NASA announced that the official name for 2014 MU69 will be Arrokoth, which is the word for “sky” in the Powhatan and Algonquian languages. The name was bestowed with the consent of tribal elders and representatives.
“The name ‘Arrokoth’ reflects the inspiration of looking to the skies and wondering about the stars and worlds beyond our own,” planetary scientist Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, says in a statement. “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.”
The phrase Ultima Thule originates from classical and Medieval literature that refers to a mythical northern land, often used to designate a place beyond the known borders of the world. The name was ultimately chosen by NASA’s New Horizons team from a shortlist of 29 nominees that got the most votes in a public online naming contest in 2018. (Ultima Thule was a top contender, however, it only received 40 votes in total.) But the agency soon received backlash over the choice after the terms’ link to Nazi ideology were revealed in a Newsweek article.
As Marina Koren at The Atlantic reports members of an occultist group in Munich called the Thule Society believed Ultima Thule was the home of the Aryan, or master race. Though the group dissolved before Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, many of its ideas about race influenced the Third Reich.
The term Thule has gone on to have a mixed history. It’s the name of a company that makes roof racks for cars and it’s also the name of an American air base in Greenland. However, it’s still commonly used by white supremacist groups for things like newspapers and neo-Nazi bands. “It’s a concept that’s very malleable, it’s been around along time,” historian Eric Kurlander at Stetson University told Megan Bartels at Newsweek in 2018. “It’s not inherently political.”
At first, NASA scientists defended using the name. Even Stern noted at the time that the term Ultima Thule is "many centuries old" and "just because some bad guys once liked the term, [we shouldn't] let them hijack it."
Since then, the agency has had a change of heart, though they did not directly discuss the reason behind renaming Ultima Thule in their press release. However, astrophysicist Simon Porter, who worked on New Horizon’s first mission and is now working on its new mission to exit the solar system, acknowledges that the Nazi connection certainly motivated the change.
“Basically, not enough due diligence was done,” Porter tells Issam Ahmed at Agence France Presse. “Historically that name was very positive and (we) realized afterwards that under certain contexts was negative.”
It’s hoped the name Arrokoth, unveiled at a ceremony at NASA headquarters yesterday, will be much less controversial. Because the teams that oversee the Hubble Space Telescope and the New Horizons mission are based in the Chesapeake Bay area, they decided to honor the Powhatan, the indigenous inhabitants of the region, with the new name.
“We graciously accept this gift from the Powhatan people,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, says in the press release. “Bestowing the name Arrokoth signifies the strength and endurance of the indigenous Algonquian people of the Chesapeake region. Their heritage continues to be a guiding light for all who search for meaning and understanding of the origins of the universe and the celestial connection of humanity.”
The New Horizons probe has been hurtling through space for close to 14 years. In 2015, its flyby of Pluto revealed the minor planet’s now iconic heart-shaped ice patch. Earlier this year, it reached Arrokoth, the strange snowman-shaped object about 22 miles long and unlike anything else observed in the solar system. The mission will now extend through 2021 as New Horizons examines other objects in the Kuiper Belt, the disc of icy rock and debris circling the sun beyond the orbit of Neptune.