JTA — Earlier this week, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by what it says is the most distant object ever explored by a spacecraft.
But calling the trans-Neptunian object by its official designation of 2014 MU69 was cumbersome and boring for NASA scientists, who considered some 34,000 names as part of a public competition in 2017.
Ultima Thule, a name that was nominated by 40 people, won the public poll. It comes from classical and medieval literature and means any distant place located beyond the “borders of the known world.”
But NASA apparently did not realize that Ultima Thule [pronounced TOO-leh) was a term used by the forerunners of the Nazi Party and is still used by some extreme right groups as part of their own mythology.
Newsweek first made the connection in a March article.
In Germany, extreme right occultists believed in a historical Thule, also called Hyperborea, as the ancient homeland of the Aryan race. The Thule Society, founded in 1918 around this and other occultist beliefs, later became the Nazi Party.
Mark Showalter, a planetary astronomer at the SETI Institute and investigator on the New Horizons mission who led the naming contest, told Newsweek that Ultima Thule has a “long history” and that Nazism is not the first thing that people associate with the term, which he admits he never heard until the naming contest.
“The primary association of Thule and Ultima Thule are with travel and exotic places and cold places — it’s associated with travel gear, it’s associated often with distant places in Greenland,” he told Newsweek. “‘Beyond the limits of the known world’ — that’s such a beautiful metaphor for what we’re doing this year.”
Twitter’s ambivalence about the name was captured in a tweet by Jacob Aron, a deputy news editor for New Scientist magazine and the grandson of Holocaust survivors.
“I had no idea Ultima Thule had Nazi connotations,” he wrote. “On the one hand, it has a clear, non-Nazi historical meaning, similar to terra incognita. On the other hand, it would be nice to go more than one day in 2019 without thinking about Nazis.”
Huh. I had no idea Ultima Thule had Nazi connotations. In two minds – on the one hand, it has a clear, non-Nazi historical meaning, similar to terra incognita. On the other hand, it would be nice to go more than one day in 2019 without thinking about Nazis https://t.co/e9uDM58TaG
— Jacob Aron (@jjaron) January 2, 2019
At least two bands — in Estonia and in Sweden — are named Ultima Thule, and four albums by European bands have the name, too. It is the name of a poetry collection by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and a short story by Vladimir Nabokov. There is a town in Arkansas called Ultima Thule and a creek in Australia.
After New Horizons has had a chance to get closer to the object, to determine more about its characteristics, NASA scientists will decide on a permanent name. It must be approved by the International Astronomical Union, which oversees all names in space. Ultima Thule reportedly does not fit the union’s criteria.
On Tuesday, based on early, fuzzy images taken the day before, scientists said Ultima Thule resembled a bowling pin. But when better, closer pictures arrived, a new consensus emerged Wednesday.
“The bowling pin is gone. It’s a snowman!” lead scientist Alan Stern informed the world from Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory , home to Mission Control in Laurel. The bowling pin image is “so 2018,” joked Stern, who is with the Southwest Research Institute.
The celestial body was nicknamed Ultima Thule before scientists could say for sure whether it was one object or two. With the arrival of the photos, they are now calling the bigger sphere Ultima and the smaller one Thule.
Thule is estimated to be 9 miles (14 kilometers) across, while Ultima is thought to be 12 miles (19 kilometers).
Scientist Jeff Moore of NASA’s Ames Research Center said the two spheres formed when icy, pebble-size pieces coalesced in space billions of years ago. Then the spheres spiraled closer to each other until they gently touched — as slowly as parking a car here on Earth at just a mile or two per hour — and stuck together.
Despite the slender connection point, the two lobes are “soundly bound” together, according to Moore.
Scientists have ascertained that the object takes about 15 hours to make a full rotation. If it were spinning fast — say, one rotation every three or four hours — the two spheres would rip apart.
The two-lobed object is what is known as a “contact binary.” It is the first contact binary NASA has ever explored. Having formed 4.5 billion years ago, when the solar system taking shape, it is also the most primitive object seen up close like this.
About the size of a city, Ultima Thule has a mottled appearance and is the color of dull brick, probably because of the effects of radiation bombarding the icy surface, with brighter and darker regions.
Both spheres are similar in color, while the barely perceptible neck connecting the two lobes is noticeably less red, probably because of particles falling down the steep slopes into that area.
So far, no moons or rings have been detected, and there were no obvious impact craters in the latest photos, though there were a few apparent “divots” and suggestions of hills and ridges, scientists said. Better images should yield definitive answers in the days and weeks ahead.
Clues about the surface composition of Ultima Thule should start rolling in by Thursday. Scientists believe the icy exterior is probably a mix of water, methane and nitrogen, among other things.
The reddish snowman picture was taken a half-hour before the spacecraft’s closest approach early Tuesday, from a distance of about 18,000 miles (28,000 kilometers).
Scientists consider Ultima Thule an exquisite time machine that should provide clues to the origins of our solar system.
It’s neither a comet nor an asteroid, according to Stern, but rather “a primordial planetesimal.” Unlike comets and other objects that have been altered by the sun over time, Ultima Thule is in its pure, original state: It’s been in the deep-freeze Kuiper Belt on the fringes of our solar system from the beginning.
“This thing was born somewhere between 99 percent and 99.9 percent of the way back to T-zero (liftoff) in our solar system, really amazing,” Stern said. He added: “We’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s not fish or fowl. It’s something that’s completely different.”
Still, he said, when all the data comes in, “there are going to be mysteries of Ultima Thule that we can’t figure out.”
AP contributed to this report.