The New Horizons team announced yesterday that MU69's official name would be “Arrokoth.”
Folks, that’s a good name.
You may know this rock as the oddly shaped object in the distant Kuiper Belt we first got a good look at earlier this year. It was the target of the New Horizons mission after its flyby of Pluto. First discovered in Hubble Space Telescope data in 2014 by astronomer Marc Buie, the New Horizons spacecraft passed the rock on New Year’s Day of this year, to much fanfare.
The first data release revealed lots of interesting tidbits about this rock. It’s a bi-lobed contact binary, meaning it’s made of two objects that fused together. It’s surprisingly flat, with little dust. It’s exciting because it’s “pristine,” a piece of material that seems to be mostly unaltered since the beginning of the solar system.
But the names for this awesome object haven’t been so great. Its initial name was (486958) MU69, MU69 for short, was a perfectly nice name if you ask me. Nominators suggested “Ultima Thule” during a NASA nickname-selecting contest, one of 37 suggestions, and the team went with it due to the term’s initial association with a far, icy land. In 2018, though, science journalist Meghan Bartels wrote about the name’s more unsavory connections; far-right German mythology uses the term to refer to the origin of the “Aryan race,” and it began to be associated with Nazism and later neo-Nazism.
When questioned, the New Horizons team mostly doubled down, reiterating that the term had multiple connotations and that it was a “wonderful name for exploration.”
Ultima Thule was just a temporary name, thankfully. Yesterday, the team announced that the official name of the rock would be “Arrokoth.” The New Horizons team selected the name with the consent from the Powhatan Tribal elders and representatives and proposed it to the International Astronomical Union and Minor Planets Center, according to a NASA release.
“The name ‘Arrokoth’ reflects the inspiration of looking to the skies and wondering about the stars and worlds beyond our own,” Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, said in the NASA release. “That desire to learn is at the heart of the New Horizons mission, and we’re honoured to join with the Powhatan community and people of Maryland in this celebration of discovery.”
Both the Hubble Space Telescope and the New Horizons mission are headquartered in Maryland, and the Chesapeake Bay area is an important one to the Powhatan people.
Why do I think Arrokoth is a good name? First off, just say it to yourself. Arrokoth. Arrokoth! It sounds mythical and epic, and that’s a good start. Secondly, I very much dislike Nazis. Thirdly, it’s cool to see Native American representation in something, though obviously this does not undo all of the many horrible things the United States has done and continues to do to its native peoples.
Anyway, bye bye, Ultima Thule. Hello, Arrokoth.