NASA’s New Horizons mission started making history the moment it launched. The probe set a record as the fastest (at the time) launch in history, and eight years later it became the first spacecraft to visit Pluto. More recently, New Horizons took a look at a small Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69. Now, NASA has announced that object has a new name. It’s “Arrokoth,” a Native American term that means “sky” in the Powhatan and Algonquian languages.
New Horizons was conceived and built to get a closer look at Pluto. At the time of its launch, Pluto was the ninth planet in the solar system. Although, it was demoted to dwarf planet while New Horizons was en route. That didn’t make the eventual flyby of Pluto any less momentous, though. New Horizons revealed a complex landscape with frozen fields of nitrogen ice and mountains of water ice. It even has clouds.
Because New Horizons was moving so fast, it couldn’t slow down and enter a stable orbit around Pluto. NASA took that as an opportunity to study other objects in the outer solar system, though. While New Horizons was on its way to Pluto, NASA identified several possible secondary targets including 2014 MU69. The NASA team nicknamed it Ultima Thule — Thule being a mythical realm shown on medieval maps, and “ultima” meaning beyond. So, 2014 MU69 was beyond the unknown.
NASA submitted the new name to the International Astronomical Union and Minor Planets Center with the consent of Powhatan Tribal elders. “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. Representatives from the Powhatan tribe were present at the ceremony to commemorate the new name with a traditional Algonquian song.
You’ll probably be hearing a lot about Arrokoth in the future. The first images showed a “snowman-like” object, but it’s actually composed of two flattened disks. NASA calls this a “primordial contact binary” because it likely formed when two objects came into contact in the distant past. Studying Arrokoth could help us better understand planetary formation at the birth of the solar system.
New Horizons is still going strong with enough power to operate into the 2030s. The team is currently considering where to point New Horizons next. They hope to complete at least one more KBO flyby in the 2020s.
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