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New Horizons’ second target is formally named Arrokoth

This composite image presents a detailed view or Arrokoth, a contact binary object. Image Credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute.

The double-lobed Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) located one billion miles beyond Pluto and visited by the New Horizons spacecraft on January 1, 2019, has been officially named Arrokoth, which means sky in the Native American Powhatan/Algonquian language.

Discovered by the New Horizons team in 2014 with the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), the KBO was initially known as 2014 MU69 and nicknamed Ultima Thule, which means a distant place beyond the known world. It is the farthest object ever visited by a spacecraft.

The new name, which was made official in a ceremony at NASA headquarters in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, November 12, was selected by the discovery team, as per the naming practices of the International Astronomical Union (IAU). It has been proposed to both the IAU and its Minor Planets Center (MPC), which oversees the naming of small solar system bodies.

Because both New Horizons team and Hubble are based in Maryland, members of both teams decided to choose a name from the culture of the indigenous people who lived in the region, which in this case is the Powhatan tribe. Before formally assigning the name, they consulted with Powhatan elders about the selection.

Pamunkey tribe elder Rev. Nick Miles began the NASA ceremony by singing a traditional Algonquian song. The Pamunkey tribe was a member of the original Powhatan Confederacy, and its members today work with Powhatan tribes in Virginia, home of the nation’s oldest Native American reservation. Though it was founded in the 1600s through a treaty with England, the reservation was not recognized by the federal government until July 2015, the same month New Horizons flew by its first target, Pluto.

“We graciously accept this gift from the Powhatan people. 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,” emphasized director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division Lori Glaze.

Located approximately four billion miles (6.4 billion km) from Earth, Arrokoth has a diameter of just 21 miles (34 km). It is a pristine relic that remained unchanged for over four billion years, giving scientists a window into the conditions of the early solar system and the process of planet formation.

Thousands of tiny, icy worlds exist in the Kuiper Belt, which is now known as the solar system’s third zone, beyond the rocky and giant planets. Most are not large enough to be spherical and do not experience active geology.

“Data from the newly-named Arrokoth has given us clues about the formation of planets and our cosmic origins. We believe this ancient body, composed of two distinct lobes that merged into one entity, may harbor answers that contribute to our understanding of the origin of life on Earth,” explained Marc Buie of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, who was part of the team that discovered New Horizons‘ second target.

It will take approximately another year for all the Arrokoth flyby data to be returned to Earth. Once that is completed, mission scientists will start looking for a third flyby target for the spacecraft. Should they find one, the mission will need approval from NASA for another extension.

“The name Arrokoth reflects the inspiration of looking to the skies and wondering about the stars and worlds beyond our own,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of SwRI Boulder. “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.”

Pamunkey elder Rev. Nick Biles sang a traditional Algonquian song at the beginning of NASA’s naming ceremony. Photo Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)




Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.

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