A snowman-shaped object that NASA probe New Horizons flew by in early 2019 now has a brand-new name. On November 12th, NASA officials announced that the item formerly known as MU69 — and once nicknamed Ultima Thule — would now have the name Arrokoth, which is the word for “sky” in the Powhatan / Algonquian language.
Arrokoth remains the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft — located approximately 4 billion miles away from Earth in a distant region of the Solar System called the Kuiper Belt. The name was chosen because the team of scientists who operate New Horizons is based in Maryland — land where the Powhatan people lived historically, and where many still live today. NASA says that they consulted with Powhatan tribal elders and representatives before deciding on the name.
Here is Dr. Phoebe Farris of the Powhatan-Pamunkey Tribe bestowing the name Arrokoth to the Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 at today’s naming ceremony. pic.twitter.com/KN7bU2cOPh— NASA (@NASA) November 12, 2019
“We graciously accept this gift from the Powhatan people,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science division said in NASA’s announcement of the name. “Bestowing the name Arrokoth signifies the strength and endurance of the indigenous Algonquian people of the Chesapeake region.”
The name Arrokoth replaces the former official designation of 2014 MU69 — which doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. It also replaces the object’s nickname, Ultima Thule, a name that dated to ancient Rome and meant “beyond the limits of the known world.” The term was appropriated by the predecessor of the Nazi Party. That made NASA’s original choice of nickname highly controversial.
The object itself has fascinated researchers since its discovery in 2014. It wasn’t until 2017 that researchers got any clue what Arrokoth looked like. Interest only increased after the New Horizons spacecraft zipped by it on New Year’s Day 2019. Images from that flyby revealed that the object was far flatter than originally anticipated, and researchers are still analyzing data from the mission.
“Data from the newly-named Arrokoth, has given us clues about the formation of planets and our cosmic origins,” Marc Buie, one of the people who discovered Arrokoth, said in a statement. “We believe this ancient body, composed of two distinct lobes that merged into one entity, may harbor answers that contribute to our understanding of the origin of life on Earth.”