NASA scientists had a busy holiday season as their New Horizons space probe hurtled past 2014 MU69, a trans-Neptunian planetesimal that could give us new insight into how planets are formed. Of course, MU69 is a pretty boring name, so a nickname was picked when it was decided that New Horizons would swing past the object 4 billion miles from our sun.
That name is now causing some controversy after denizens of the internet (and Newsweek) realized Ultima Thule, a term dating back to the Roman Empire to denote distant cold lands, was adopted by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party as a mythological Aryan homeland. The term continues to see use in that context to this day by neo-Nazis and other white supremacist groups.
“I sort of thought we might get that question,” the mission’s principal investigator Alen Stern said (via the New York Times). “I’ve said it a number of times, I think New Horizons is an example — one of the best examples in our time — of raw exploration, and the term Ultima Thule, which is very old, many centuries old, possibly over a thousand years old, is a wonderful meme for exploration. That’s why we chose it. I would say that just because some bad guys once liked that term, we’re not going to let them hijack it.”
After flying by the most distant object ever explored, @NASANewHorizons beamed back the 1st pictures & science data from #UltimaThule. This data is helping us understand how planets form — both those in our own solar system & those orbiting other stars: https://t.co/cp8lE03Cl5 pic.twitter.com/CUaOK1LZBG— NASA (@NASA) January 2, 2019
Scientists responsible for picking Ultima Thule’s temporary name (an official designation will be approved by the International Astronomical Union later) were aware of the term’s Nazi associations when they chose it. But according to Space, the team decided the Roman meaning “beyond the limits of the known world” was much more prominent than the Nazi attempt to appropriate it.
There’s no evidence that the name was offered up as part of a trick or troll to name the space object something offensive. The New Horizons team fielded 34,000 suggestions for MU69’s nickname, and Ultima Thule came in seventh in a vote alongside names like Mjolnir, Cashew, and Tiramisu.
Naming controversy aside, New Horizons’ flyby of the deep space object (as reported by the Inquisitr) was a resounding success and scientists have just begun to receive higher resolution images that are unmasking the mysteries of Ultima Thule. During a Wednesday press conference, it was revealed that Ultima Thule is a contact binary: two completely separate objects that were once separate but now joined together. According to Stern, the two spherical lobes must have connected at very low speeds of a few miles per hour at most to connect and not destroy each other.