Meet Arrokoth, The Most Distant Space Object Ever Seen Up Close

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft encountered this Kuiper belt object, which has been named Arrokoth.

The bundle of ice and rock was discovered using a telescope operated in Maryland. It was studied up close by a spacecraft built in the same state. So when NASA scientists had to choose an official name for the most distant object they had ever explored, they borrowed a word from the original inhabitants of this region: Arrokoth, the Powhatan/Algonquian term for “sky.”

“Bestowing the name Arrokoth signifies the strength and endurance of the indigenous Algonquian people of the Chesapeake region,” Lori Glaze, the director of NASA’s planetary science division, said at a naming ceremony Wednesday. “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.”

The name also replaces a nickname with an unintended white supremacist connection: “Ultima Thule,” a medieval term used to describe the lands beyond the edges of maps. Nazis used it to refer to a mythical homeland of the Aryan people, as was reported in Newsweek, and it remains in use by modern far-right groups.

Arrokoth (pronounced AR-oh-kodh) is a Kuiper Belt object, one of millions of icy bodies that exist beyond the orbit of Neptune. As a frozen fragment of the material that formed the planets, scientists say, it holds clues to the earliest days of the solar system.

It was discovered in 2014 with the Hubble Space Telescope, which is operated by the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. Viewed through Hubble’s lens, it appeared as little more than a faint pixel of light in a sea of black.

But just after midnight on New Year’s Day, when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft swooshed past the object, Arrokoth became the most distant object humans have seen up close. Images streamed down to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, revealed a reddish, snowman-shape world.

Alan Stern, the principal investigator for the New Horizons mission, initially defended the Ultima Thule nickname. “Just because some bad guys once liked that term, we’re not going to let them hijack it,” he told reporters who asked about the Nazi connection shortly after the January flyby