The excitement around NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft arriving at its latest target, an oddly shaped object called (486958) 2014 MU69, has dredged up a fact that often goes unstated—the object’s nickname, “Ultima Thule,” carries links to Nazism.
Though most people haven’t heard of the term’s unsavory use by the Nazis, the New Horizons team was aware of it and went with the name anyway, science reporter Meghan Bartels reported for Newsweek in March 2018. The New Horizons team continues to defend the term today.
Ultima Thule was one of 37 monikers that people nominated and was a “relatively common suggestion,” though not common enough to suggest ballot-stuffing by trolls or other bad actors, according to Bartels’ reporting. The name dates back to the Roman empire, when it was used to describe some far, icy land, and even appeared on maps. The New Horizons team thought it was an apt term for MU69, the spacecraft’s next target beyond Pluto.
But just looking at the Wikipedia page for “Thule” reveals that according to far-right German mythology, this place was the original origin of the “Aryan race.” According to Bartels’ reporting, the term acquired this connotation in the 19th century and was used by the Nazi party. NASA and the New Horizons team considered the alternate meaning and included it in the vote anyway, since this wasn’t the “primary association,” Mark Showalter, an astronomer on the New Horizons team, told Bartels. The name didn’t get the most votes from the public, but NASA decided that it was the best fit for the object.
Though Bartels’ story came out in March 2018, it resurfaced on Twitter this week in conjunction with New Horizons’ arrival at the object. New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern responded to concerns over the term’s alternate meaning at a press conference on Wednesday. “The term ‘Ultima Thule’ was many centuries old... and is a wonderful name for exploration. That’s why we chose it. Just because some bad guys once liked that term, we’re not going to let them hijack it,” Stern said.
He did not address why the team decided on the name despite already knowing about the negative connotations. Plenty of symbols, like eagles and lighting bolts, have gained secondary, nefarious meanings due to Nazi associations—but “Ultima Thule” was selected despite the secondary meaning still used today by neo-Nazis and members of the alt-right, and at a time where Nazism is on the rise in the United States.
Nevertheless, Ultima Thule isn’t the object’s official name—a formal name will need to be proposed to the International Astronomical Union.
I get it: It’s a cool name, and no one wants to be called a Nazi. But it’s a bummer that the New Horizons team is doubling down on the name, despite already knowing about its nefarious second meaning.