On January 1 of this year, NASA’s New Horizons reached a remote small Kuiper Belt object then known as 2014 MU69. It's the furthest world ever explored, and now has a brand-new (via a slight detour) name: Arrokoth. Arrokoth is a Native American term that means sky in the Powhatan/Algonquian language.
The name was submitted to the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and Minor Planet Center by the New Horizon team with consent from Powhatan Tribal elders and representatives, and was announced at a ceremony at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
"We graciously accept this gift from the Powhatan people," Lori Glaze, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, said in a statement. "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."
Arrokoth is a 36-kilometer-long (22-mile) object made up of two planetesimals that fused together in a peculiar shape. It orbits the Sun every 298 years and when New Horizons flew by this world, it was 6.49 billion kilometers (4.03 billion miles) from the Sun. It was the most distant planetary flyby in history, the first close-up look at a celestial object of this type, and the furthest world ever explored, a record expected to last for decades.
You may have heard of the object under its original nickname, Ultima Thule, meaning “beyond the known world” and named after the legendary region, or possibly island (speculated to be north of Britan), thought to be the northernmost location known in Greek and Roman maps. However, several people, such as Meghan Bartel, raised concerns about the use of the name Thule, given that the Thule Society was a racist and anti-Semitic German organization responsible for sponsoring what would become Hitler’s Nazi party. To them, Ultima Thule was the "birthplace" of the Aryan people. The term remains in use in alt-right circles today and is even the moniker of a Swedish rock band described as popular with right-wing and "white power" supporters.
"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."
Arrokoth was discovered by New Horizons team member Marc Buie in 2014. According to the IAU naming conventions, the discovery team has the privilege of choosing the name of the object. The team decided to associate this world with the language of the native people that inhabited the region where the discovery took place. In this case, that is Maryland, the base of operation of both the Hubble Space Telescope and New Horizons.