NASA Named Its Next New Horizons Target Ultima Thule, a Mythical Land With a Nazi Connection

On Tuesday, NASA announced their temporary nickname for the New Horizon mission’s current target: Ultima Thule. The spacecraft is due to fly past on January 1, 2019, and the team was getting tired of using its official designation, 2014 MU69. There’s just one issue: the name has some unsavory connotations. It was adopted by the forerunners to the Nazi party, and the term remains in use by modern so-called alt-right groups.

Of course, that’s not why the team chose the name, which dates back to fourth century Europe and references a mythological land far to the north, someplace distant and cold, just like 2014 MU69. "I had never heard the term Ultima Thule before we had our naming campaign," Mark Showalter, a planetary astronomer at the SETI Institute and investigator on the New Horizons mission who led the naming process, told Newsweek. "‘Beyond the limits of the known world’—that's such a beautiful metaphor for what we're doing this year."

Showalter said that when he began looking into Ultima Thule as a possible name, he was struck by its long history. As far back as during the late Roman empire, people have applied the term to distant, cold, northern lands—both mythological ones and the real Arctic. Showalter enjoyed its historical romance, like its use on early maps. "I like the idea that it actually comes from a time when cartography and mythology were mixed together," he said. When mapmakers passed the boundaries of what they actually knew existed, "they just started making things up."

That’s not to say the New Horizons team simply ran with the suggestion, which was one of about 34,000 names submitted by an online nomination process. Several of those names were discarded as having been clearly the product of an organized campaign, and Showalter and his colleagues did look into each of the names that became contenders. He said that about 40 people nominated Ultima Thule—many fewer than for the names suggested by ballot-stuffing, but a relatively common suggestion. Ultima Thule and 36 other candidates were then put up for a public vote last November and December.

This isn’t Showalter’s first online naming process, and he says that in general he’s been pleased by how these projects have gone. "By and large, people take this process very seriously and I come out of these things generally really kind of impressed by humanity," he said. "Not everybody on the Internet is a troll."

03_14_ultima_thule_2014mu69 An artist's depiction of the New Horizons spacecraft at 2014 MU69, now nicknamed Ultima Thule. NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Steve Gribben

But as he and his colleagues began narrowing down a list of final contenders, Showalter did stumble on the less palatable meaning of Ultima Thule, which was appropriated in the 19th century to refer to the mythological homeland of the Aryan race. The Nazi party later incorporated it into their belief system, just as it did other previously benign ideas like the swastika.

"It's a concept that's very malleable, it's been around along time," Eric Kurlander, a historian at Stetson University who has studied Nazi supernatural beliefs, told Newsweek. "It's not inherently political." But he added that applying the term to the distant target of a spacecraft might have appealed to Nazis. "The Nazis were fascinated by space and rocketships and things like that," Kurlander said. (During the 1940s and beyond, NASA thrived by hiring noted German rocket engineer Wernher Von Braun and other scientists who had worked for the Nazi regime.)

Benjamin Teitelbaum, an ethnomusicologist who has researched a Scandinavian band called Ultima Thule that taps into this racially charged definition, was also surprised to hear about the decision. He thinks the term falls into a sort of grey space, since most people are unaware of its more sordid meaning. "Most people don't hear the word Ultima Thule and think Nazis, Aryan myths, and strange ghostly white people living at the pole," he said.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to find the connotation from a quick Google search. And he says that makes deciding how to handle the term trickier. "It's very difficult when you're dealing with terms or icons or symbols that have been appropriated," Teitelbaum said. He added that the 20th century philosopher Julius Evola, whom Steve Bannon and other alt-right leaders frequently cite, used the term.

Read more: NASA's New Horizons Will Fly Much Closer to a Hunk of Rock and Ice Than It Did Past Pluto

Showalter said that NASA—including the agency’s legal department—and the New Horizons team balanced the term’s more recent past against its original meaning. "The question we looked at very closely was whether this was a primary association," he said. "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." In the end, they decided to include it in the popular vote, where it fared quite well, coming in seventh out of the 37 options.

And the New Horizons team knew all along that Ultima Thule would only ever be a temporary nickname. Until the spacecraft gets closer, scientists won’t even know if it’s just one object they’re trying to name or if the object is in two or more pieces. The final, formal name—or names—will need to be approved by the International Astronomical Union, which oversees all names in space, and Ultima Thule doesn’t meet their criteria. Showalter says he expects permanent names to be confirmed before the end of 2019.

But in the meantime, he added, Ultima Thule solves one challenge the team has been dealing with ever since New Horizons was approved to make another stop on its long voyage. "We're very, very tired of talking about 2014 MU69," Showalter said. "Any name is better than 2014 MU69."