What’s in a Name?

Listen 05:08
Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute via AP

Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute via AP

Following its Pluto encounter in 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft was pushing on into the Kuiper Belt, aiming toward an object known originally as 2014 MU69, when space scientists and the public decided it needed a new name. Shortly before the New Horizons encounter on January 1, 2019, they chose the name Ultima Thule. Then a reporter at Newsweek pointed out that the Nazi party had used the phrase Ultima Thule to refer to the mythical homeland of the Aryan people. The term apparently remains in use by modern so-called alt-right groups. Now the object has a new name yet again. The name is now Arrokoth, which means sky in the Powhatan and Algonquian languages. The name was chosen based on the local Native American culture in Maryland, where the New Horizons mission control center is based.
Arrokoth is roughly 19 miles long, or about 1/60th the diameter of Pluto. A wealth of data from New Horizons’ encounter with Arrokoth is still being sent back from the spacecraft to Earth for analysis. Scientists used New Horizons’ cameras to glimpse its strange, double-lobed shape, indicating a possible gentle collision of two objects long ago. Arrokoth also appears to be covered in methane or nitrogen ice, giving it a red tinge.

Tuesday this week is the 50th anniversary of the second crewed lunar landing, Apollo 12. There were a number of unplanned events that occurred during the mission – like lightning strikes during launch – but one of the least spoken of is the tiny art gallery left on the moon called Moon Museum.
A tiny ceramic wafer, .75x.5 inches, was etched with six artworks and attached to one of the legs of the lunar lander by a Northrup Grumman engineer who worked on that lander.
The six artworks by Robert Rauchenberg(a line), David Novros(black square), John Chamberlain(circuitry template), Claes Oldenberg(geometric Mickey Mouse), Andy Warhol(initials) and Forrest Myers(CG intersecting pattern), were etched onto either 16 or 20 chips by an engineer at Bell labs. The project was coordinated by Myers who wanted to bring send the tiny piece to the moon with NASA’s approval. Myers tried repeatedly to get NASA’s approval. They never said ‘No’, but never said yes either. Turned out the Bell Labs engineer knew a NG employee working on the lander who was willing to affix the chip inside an access panel on one of the lander legs. Two days before launch, the still unnamed engineer sent a telegram to Myers confirming the chip was placed. The other 15 etched chips were given to people involved in this clandestine project.

Fresh off its recent transit of the sun, Mercury is now visible in the Eastern pre-dawn sky from 5 – 6 a.m. along with the brighter Mars; Mercury is below, to the left. The moon drops through passing them Friday and Saturday. Venus now joins Jupiter and Saturn in the west 30 minutes after sunset. Watch Venus and Jupiter Sidle up to each other this week a little closer every day.

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