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The icy 'space snowman' Arrokoth in deep space just got names for its best features

A composite image of the Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth.
A composite image of the Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth. (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Roman Tkachenko)

The map of a distant, lobe-shaped object called Arrokoth (2014 MU69) now has official names to accompany the images from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft.

After the spacecraft zoomed by the lobe-shaped world in 2019, managers of the mission — most famous for its flyby of Pluto four years before — announced the proposed feature names were approved by the International Astronomical Union.

The names closely follow the theme of the name "Arrokoth," which means "sky" in the Powhatan/Algonquin Native American language. (Algonquin territory also includes parts of Canada, where such populations are usually called "Indigenous" or "First Nations.")

"Naming these features on Arrokoth is a milestone that the New Horizons team is very proud to reach," Alan Stern, the New Horizons mission's principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado, said in a statement (opens in new tab) from Johns Hopkins University Applied Research Laboratory, which built and operates the spacecraft.

"It's a significant step in our discovery and exploration of this ancient object," Stern added of the naming, "in a distant region of the solar system we're just beginning to learn about."

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The names focus on three prominent features on the the 22-mile (35-kilometer) long world: a near-circular arc on the larger lobe of Arrokoth, the "neck" or joining area between the lobes, and a large crater located on the smaller lobe.

The arc will be named "Ka'an," the word for "sky" in the Yucatec Mayan language spoken in parts of the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula and Belize. "It also resembles the word for 'snake' in this language — 'kan' — and both terms derive from the classical Mayan word, 'chan,'" JHUAPL stated. (Snakes were often associated in Mayan paintings with the sky, or heaven.)

The three prominent features on the Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth — explored by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft in January 2019 — now have official names. (Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Southwest Research Institute)

The neck is named "Akasa," the word for sky in Bengali (Bangla), and derived from similar words in Sanskrit (ākāśam), Nepali (akās), Malayalam (ākāśaṃ), Oriya (akaśô), Sinhalese (ākāśaya), Tamil (ākāyam) and Telugu (ākāśamu).

Lastly, the large crater is named "Sky," in English. (During the flyby, the nickname for this crater was "Maryland," where JHUAPL is located.)

New Horizons remains in excellent health, and the team is scanning the region for a longshot third flyby that may take place in the 2030s. The challenge in planning such a flyby, Stern said in a mission update in 2021, is that the Kuiper Belt is so thinly populated that objects are hard to find.

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.