Nasa renames celestial body after Nazi controversy over previous name
Wednesday, 13 November 2019
Fly-by image of (486958) 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule, from the New Horizons spaceprobe. Credit: IAU
The most distant celestial body ever observed up close was officially renamed Arrokoth – meaning sky in the language of the Amerindian Powhatan tribe – on Tuesday, after its initial name Ultima Thule gave rise to controversy through its association with Nazi vocabulary.
A frozen relic from the birth of the solar system, Arrokoth is in the Kuiper belt, itself located some 4.8 billion kilometres from the Sun. The New Horizons probe flew over it in January and for the first time transmitted detailed photos of the celestial object to Nasa. It was a historic discovery. The images appear to show that it was formed in the shape of two spheres or “lobes” – like a snowman.
Ultima Thule – whose technical name is 2014 MU69 – derived its nickname from a distant island found in medieval literature.
However, this appellation gave rise to heated reactions because it was also used by extreme right occultists in 20th. century Germany to designate the place from which the “Aryans” came.
Their “Thule” society then became Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party and the expression remained popular in extreme-right circles.
The new official name chosen by the team in charge of New Horizons was announced during an official ceremony held at Nasa headquarters on Tuesday. A later press release from the American space agency, in any case, made no mention of the controversy.
“The name Arrokoth reflects the source of inspiration stemming from the contemplation of the sky and asking questions about the stars and other worlds beyond our own,” Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado and the man in charge of the New Horizons mission, declared.
Nasa added it had received the agreement of the Powhatan tribal elders and that the name was chosen to incorporate the culture of native peoples living in the region where the object was discovered by the Hubble telescope.
Hubble, which revealed Arrokoth for the first time in 2014, and the New Horizons mission are controlled from the ground in Maryland in the United States, where the Chesapeake Bay region is home to the Powhatans.