“Nomenclature is an important way of communicating from scientists to the nonscientific public, and how we choose names, what we choose to name, is a sign of what we think is important or interesting or exciting,” says Keith Noll, a planetary astronomer at NASA.
Ultima Thule placed seventh. (Mjölnir, the hammer of the mythical god Thor, was first; I blame Thor: Ragnarok, which premiered a month before the poll opened in 2017, for this.) “I had never heard the term Ultima Thule before we had our naming campaign,” Mark Showalter, a planetary astronomer at the SETI Institute and the New Horizons scientist who led the process, told Newsweek last year.
Showalter uncovered the Nazi associations as he went through the list, Bartels reported. But he and other scientists liked the original meaning of Ultima Thule, and it seems that the term’s long, dreamlike history outweighed the more recent, troubling connotations. “‘Beyond the limits of the known world’—that’s such a beautiful metaphor for what we’re doing this year,” he said to Newsweek. (Showalter did not respond to requests for an interview.)
And so NASA ran with the name, promoting it on social media and merchandise. Journalists (myself included) adopted it, too; after all, Ultima Thule is far more approachable than something that reads like a SKU code. Meanwhile, many scientists, on the New Horizons team and elsewhere, referred to the object exclusively as MU69. They knew that someday, MU69 would get a real name, arbitrated and approved by an international organization responsible for naming objects in the universe, from little asteroids to big stars.
The New Horizons team is already thinking about it. “We haven’t proposed a formal name yet, but we will later this year,” Stern told me this week.
Stern can’t propose the name himself. According to the International Astronomical Union, the duty rests with the discoverer of an object. In the case of MU69, that would be Marc Buie, an astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute and a New Horizons member who has spent a decade studying the object. Brainstorming the name is a team effort, but Buie must be the one who submits their final pick. And thanks to the public backlash against Ultima Thule, the process may be more difficult than usual.
“I’ve got naming rights on like 400, 500 other Kuiper Belt objects, and I just haven’t gotten around to them yet,” Buie told me. “I just have to get around to it and say, ‘I like this name,’ and just send it in, and it’s done, and there’s no drama. But that’s because nobody cares one way or another what name I give it. But here you’ve got something that’s in the public eye, it’s getting a lot of clicks, a lot of eyeballs, and everybody treats that pretty seriously these days.”
The controversy taps into a long-standing problem in space exploration. Humankind’s ventures into the cosmos are steeped in the same language that characterized their journeys on Earth; astronauts and spacecraft are cast as pioneers brave enough to conquer wild frontiers and perhaps colonize new worlds. NASA has mostly moved away from such terminology, but it remains in use, including, to give one recent example, by the vice president, who described the United States as “a nation of restless pioneers ever striving to explore uncharted territories” in a speech this week.