New Horizons' Ultima Thule Is Given a Shiny New Name: Arrokoth

The Native American name means 'sky' in the Powhatan/Algonquian language.
Fabienne Lang
The photo credit line may appear like thisNASA

NASA's New Horizons probe flew past a bizarrely shaped object nearly a year ago and had yet to be offered an official name. It went by the clinical name of Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, and then Ultima Thule

The latter name was deemed controversial, and so everyone welcomed the object's new and Native American name: Arrokoth. 


The Kuiper Belt object

Arrokoth in the Powhatan/Algonquian Native American language means 'sky' — rather apt, we'd say. 

The New Horizons science team announced the change of name on Tuesday, which has been approved by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and its Minor Planet Center.

New Horizons' Ultima Thule Is Given a Shiny New Name: Arrokoth
Composite image of primordial contact binary Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69 from New Horizons Spacecraft Data. Source: NASA

Before even making the proposal, though, the team first asked for consent from elders of the Powhatan Tribe. Some members of the Tribe are based in Maryland, which is consequently where New Horizons is also based.

"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, said in a NASA 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.”

Other NASA team members spoke graciously of the new name. Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division said that "we graciously accept this gift from the Powhatan people."

The IAU states that naming privileges of a discovered celestial body go to its discoverers. In this case, that's New Horizons, who identified the 22-mile-long object in 2014 by using the Hubble Space Telescope. 

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Why was the object's previous name controversial?

Ultima Thule, one of Arrokoth's first names, is a term used in ancient times in accordance with a place beyond the known world. However, the term was also used by Nazis and right-wing extremists when referring to a mythical place for the Aryan race. 

New Horizons' Ultima Thule Is Given a Shiny New Name: Arrokoth
New Horizons path of exploration. Source: NASA

When the New Horizons team discovered the object in space, the original ancient name of Ultima Thule made sense. The team insisted that the meaning of it was linked to that, not the Nazi reference. 

Regardless, renaming the object made sense and removes any controversy.