Nasa officials have defended the name of a distant space object after questions over its link to Nazis.
Ultima Thule – an icy world floating in the Kuiper Belt, at the edge of our Solar System – this week became the most distant object ever to be explored by humanity. Scientists have already received stunning photos back from the New Horizons spacecraft that took a look at it, and expect to make even deeper discoveries in the coming months and years.
But, even while that has happened, controversy has continued to rage over the name that Nasa chose to give to that far-away target.
The phrase Ultima Thule is a Latin metaphor, used historically to refer to those parts of the world so distant that they were unknown. As such, it has appeared on maps and in other places for centuries.
But in addition to those older uses, the word has been used by some Nazis to refer to the mystical land where the Aryan race began. The German Thule Society was an important contributor to the Nazis, and the phrase continues to be used by some neo-Nazi and alt-right groups today.
That connection was made in a Newsweek article in March, when the name was first announced, following a public competition. But that article and the sentiment behind it have been shared again over the last week, after the Nasa mission successfully surveyed Ultima Thule itself.
Now the Nasa mission's principal investigator, Alan Stern, has spoken out about the name – and defended the decision to keep using it even after the connection became clear.
"I sort of thought we might get that question," he said when reporters pressed him on the issue during a conference to discuss the first results from the flyby.
"I've said it a number of times, I think New Horizons is an example — one of the best examples in our time — of raw exploration, and the term Ultima Thule, which is very old, many centuries old, possibly over a thousand years old, is a wonderful name for exploration," he said.
"That's why we chose it. I would say that just because some bad guys once liked that term, we're not going to let them hijack it."
The name is only temporary, and the object will be given a permanent one by the International Astronomical Union. That was left until the flyby was completed and the object was better known, allowing its proper name to reflect its properties.
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