Scientists have renamed the Kuiper Belt object MU69 as "Arrokoth." Photo by NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/UPI | License Photo
Nov. 14 (UPI) -- NASA scientists with the New Horizons team have renamed MU69, a Kuiper Belt asteroid.
The space rock's new moniker is "Arrokoth," the word for "sky" in the language used by the native Powhatan people of Tidewater region of Virginia. The Powhatan people also lived in Maryland, the state in which astronomers first spotted MU69.
"The name 'Arrokoth' reflects the inspiration of looking to the skies, and wondering about the stars and worlds beyond our own," said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. "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."
Before MU69 was Arrokoth, it was called something else.
After fielding naming suggestions from the public in 2018, scientists working on the New Horizons mission decided to name the space rock "Ultima Thule," a Latin name referencing a distant place outside the confines of the known world.
The term is common in ancient Greek and Latin literature, and also used in Inuit culture. The Thule people were the ancestors of all modern Inuit. Unfortunately, the term was adopted by far-right groups in Germany as the name of the land from which the "Aryan race" originate. In fact, it was the Thule Society, a group of German occultists, that was later reorganized into the Nazi Party by Adolph Hitler.
In the wake of the New Horizons probe's rendezvous with MU69 in January -- the first contact binary to be explored by a spacecraft -- NASA began fielding complaints about the name's connection to Nazis and neo-Nazi groups.
At first, New Horizons scientists defended their name choice, but as criticism mounted, the team decided to rename the asteroid.
NASA held a naming ceremony this week to reintroduce the icy space rock as Arrokoth. Reverend Nick Miles, Tecumseh Red Cloud, a member of the Pamunkey Tribe, opened the ceremony with a traditional Algonquian chant.
"We graciously accept this gift from the Powhatan people," Lori Glaze, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, said of the new name. "Bestowing the name Arrokoth signifies the strength and endurance of the indigenous Algonquian people of the Chesapeake region. Their heritage continues to be a guiding light for all who search for meaning and understanding of the origins of the universe and the celestial connection of humanity."
Scientists are interested in bodies like Arrokoth because they might hold clues to the origins of the solar system. Though Arrokoth formed a long time ago, it remains pristine, seemingly unmarked by craters, and because it is so far from the sun, it remains in a deep freeze, making it an ideal place to look for the chemical signatures of the early solar system.