Until Tuesday, Ultima Thule was the informal name NASA used for a small, snowman-shaped object in the Kuiper belt, a desolate region of deep space that the agency said in a statement is home to “thousands of known small icy worlds.”
But that name was not registered with the International Astronomical Union and Minor Planet Center, which has international authority for the naming of objects in the Kuiper belt. Its official name was the impersonal-sounding “Kuiper belt object 2014 MU69.”
The object’s strangely shaped, rust-colored body is composed of two connected spherical lobes and measures just 21 miles across at its widest point. When it was photographed on New Year’s Day 2019 by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, it was the first object of its kind that planetary scientists had ever gotten to see up close.
The term Ultima Thule, however, has its origins much closer to home. It is a Latin term used in classical antiquity to denote distant and unknown lands, in particular ones that were cold, like the Nordic countries. That Northern European connection drew the attention of the Nazis.
“Thule was one of the names they gave to what they believed was the ancient Aryan homeland, a prehistoric Aryan utopia that collapsed because of racial miscegenation or a flood or what have you,” said Eric Kurlander, a professor of history at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla.
The name is also used by the Thule Society, a racist, occult group formed in 1918. The society gave birth the next year to the German Workers’ Party, which Adolf Hitler soon joined and used as the precursor to the Nazi Party.
“This isn’t just some obscure element among hundreds of others in the Nazi cosmology,” Dr. Kurlander said. “They named a tank division after Thule in World War II. It keeps popping up, which is why it probably makes sense not to name something that anyone has any interest in Thule. It has too much baggage as this point.”