When NASA’s New Horizons flew by a distant Kuiper Belt Object on New 12 months’s Day, they nicknamed it “Ultima Thule.” Now, the thing has acquired an official moniker: Arrokoth.
Essentially the most distant explored physique has a brand new identify. Initially known as 2014 MU69, the tiny Kuiper Belt object that New Horizons flew by on January 1, 2019, has now been formally named Arrokoth, the phrase for “sky” within the Algonquian language of the Powhatan individuals. The brand new identify replaces the short-term nickname “Ultima Thule,” a time period proposed in a public naming contest that has served as a placeholder over the previous yr.
In accordance with the International Astronomical Union, the group answerable for the official names of celestial our bodies, objects past the orbit of Neptune are to be given mythological names associated to creation. These worlds embrace Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), the small icy inhabitants on the fringe of the photo voltaic system, of which Arrokoth is part. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by Arrokoth (pronounced AR-uh-koth) on New 12 months’s Day, 4 years after its profitable flyby of Pluto. What was initially considered one object turned out to be two connected our bodies that look surprisingly like a flattened snowman.
“When serious about potential names, the primary query that crossed my thoughts was, ‘Why achieve this many KBOs have Polynesian names,” mentioned Mark Showalter, chief of the New Horizons nomenclature working group. The explanation, he mentioned, is as a result of most of them have been found by telescopes based mostly out of Hawai‘i, which is dominated by that tradition.
In distinction, Arrokoth was noticed by the Hubble Area Telescope, which is operated out of the Area Telescope Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. New Horizons additionally has robust ties to Maryland by the Johns Hopkins Utilized Physics Laboratory and NASA Goddard headquarters, establishments that have been crucial to creating the spacecraft and its devices.
“We wished to do one thing from a creation delusion that honors Maryland, which is the epicenter of this undertaking,” mentioned New Horizons precept investigator Alan Stern (Southwest Analysis Institute).
Historic data indicated that the area round Baltimore wasn’t settled by native individuals when Europeans arrived. Nevertheless, the Powhatan individuals lived solely a brief distance to the south.
“The Powhatan language has been misplaced, however I discovered there exists a dictionary of some hundred phrases that have been written down within the early 1600s,” Showalter mentioned. “That was the reference I used.”
Stern referred to as Arrokoth a “trifecta”: It celebrates Maryland’s historical past and is expounded to flight. “And it’s a lovely phrase, it simply roles off your tongue,” he added. “It seems like one thing fantastically celestial or sci-fi.”
The New Horizons staff had beforehand taken some flak for MU69’s nickname “Ultima Thule.” The time period, which dates again to the fourth century, means “past the boundaries of the recognized world.” Actually, it’s a becoming identify for an object on the fringe of the Kuiper Belt. However the time period additionally has ties to the Thule Society, a forerunner to the Nazi occasion.
“[Ultima Thule] was by no means meant to be a everlasting identify,” Stern explains. When NASA introduced the nickname in 2018, they said that an official name would follow after the spacecraft’s shut encounter with the thing. “I knew that the general public engagement on the flyby could be way more efficient if we had a greater identify than 2014 MU69 — one thing individuals might bear in mind,” he added. However the time period had nothing to do with creation and didn’t match the IAU’s naming statutes.
Proper now Arrokoth’s options even have nicknames, together with the 2 lobes, “Ultima” and “Thule.” Ultimately, the staff will choose a theme for the options of this pancake snowman. However Stern mentioned that naming is low on the checklist of priorities. Data from the spacecraft will proceed to trickle in till early 2021, and science and mission planning take priority.
Within the meantime, the New Horizons staff has embraced the brand new identify. On Tuesday, November 12th, Powhatan elders joined staff members at NASA’s headquarters as NASA made the official announcement. Though the elders didn’t contribute to proposing the identify, they did give their consent for its use. In accordance with Stern, there was a “very heat ambiance” through the ceremony, with elders burning incense, telling tribal tales, and singing tribal music on the seat of American house exploration.
“It was very American,” Stern mentioned. “Native American, however very American.”