An Ultima Thule by Any Other Name…

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NASA Responds to Backlash Over Nazi Ties to Ultima Thule Name.

The object formerly known as Ultima Thule will henceforth be known as Arrokoth. The leadership of NASA’s New Horizon’s mission nicknamed the object. And much was made of New Horizons’ first visit to the icy rock back in January. Not all of that attention was positive, however. It turns out, though the intentions behind the nickname were pure, the name Ultima Thule has a Nazi connection that can’t be ignored. Accordingly, after significant backlash, they decided to eschew the old moniker for a new, more appropriate one. 

The Farthest Cosmic Body

Ultima Thule Arrokoth is the farthest cosmic body we’ve ever visited with a spacecraft. Nestled in the Kuiper Belt, the snowman-shaped rock orbits about a billion miles past Pluto. Its technical name (the one on its birth certificate) is 2014 MU69, but of course, that doesn’t exactly roll off of the tongue (nor does it make for fun headlines). So the team at New Horizons began calling it Ultima Thule. They came up with that name after they thought was nothing more than a mythological realm in European legend that’s beyond the borders of the known. 

The Naming Controversy

According to astrophysicist Simon Porter, part of the New Horizons team, they didn’t vet the name enough, though. That’s why they didn’t realize that a group of hardcore white nationalists in Germany adopted it in the years leading up to World War II. Those particular white German nationalists—who, of course, became the Nazis—saw Thule as the ancestral homeland of the Aryan people. Now, with the rise of white nationalism all over the world, the name continues to be a rallying point for far-right groups across Europe today. Think Scandinavian white-power death metal… Yeah, one of those bands is called Ultima Thule. They’re from Sweeden.

The New Name

NASA announced the new name on Tuesday in a ceremony at its headquarters. They made no official mention of the controversy. Rather, they focused on the reasoning for the new name.

“The name ‘Arrokoth’ reflects the inspiration of looking to the skies and wondering about the stars and worlds beyond our own,” Alan Stern said. Stern serves as principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute in Colorado. He continued, “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 part about joining with the Powhatan people is important, of course. The Powhatan were some of the first indigenous peoples to encounter European settlers. And honoring that heritage without their concent may have been even worse for the New Horizons team. 

Regardless of the name, however, Arrokoth existed before any of us. It’s been orbiting out there since our solar system was born over four and a half billion years ago. When we’re gone, it’ll still be there. And so will the New Horizons spacecraft that gave us such great images of Arrokoth. As I type, it’s on its way out of the Kuiper Belt and into deep interstellar space. It will continue on its path for millennia while the rest of us fight our wars, build and collapse our civilizations, and continue to evolve toward whatever end.

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Brandon Humphreys

Brandon Humphreys

I'm a wizard. I write stuff and it goes from my head into yours - Magic! Apart from that, I am the Senior Editor for Space Porn, a veteran, a rock guitarist, and a teacher.

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