NASA renames snowman-shaped Kuiper belt object "Arrokoth"
More than a billion miles beyond Pluto drifts a bizarre, snowman-shaped world that was visited by the New Horizons probe at the beginning of the year. Originally nicknamed Ultima Thule, NASA has now officially named this Kuiper belt object “Arrokoth.”
The new name is a Native American term that means “sky” in the Powhatan/Algonquian language. These people are native to the state of Maryland, where the Hubble Space Telescope and New Horizons mission operate.
“The name ‘Arrokoth’ reflects the inspiration of looking to the skies and wondering about the stars and worlds beyond our own,” says Alan Stern, principal investigator on the New Horizons project. “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.”
Although NASA is playing coy about it, the name change may also have been partly inspired by a backlash over the original nickname of Ultima Thule. The term historically means “the most distant place beyond the borders of the known world,” but it was co-opted by the Nazis as the name for the mythical home of the Aryan race, and still has links to that heinous ideology today.
Arrokoth is far less controversial, no less meaningful, and importantly, still sounds pretty cool.
The object was discovered in 2014 in the Kuiper belt beyond Neptune, and given the provisional designation 2014 MU69. It was soon chosen as the next major target for the New Horizons spacecraft, after its 2015 flyby of Pluto.
In January this year, the probe whizzed past the object at a distance of just 3,500 km (2,200 mi) above its surface, returning some sharp, detailed images of this far away world. It was revealed that Arrokoth measures about 36 km (22 mi) long, spins like a propeller, and is actually mostly flat when viewed side-on.
For now, New Horizons continues to beam data on Arrokoth and other Kuiper belt objects back to Earth, as it ventures further into the unknown.