The Sputnik Planitia is the brighter, left half of the ‘heart’ on Pluto.

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

Sputnik Planitia is a gigantic, ice-covered area, one thousand kilometres across. This large, pale basin makes up one half of the famous ‘heart’ shape on Pluto’s surface. Despite its size, the Sputnik Planitia was discovered recently, and it only got its name this year!

Two years ago, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew straight past Pluto, taking photos and other scientific measurements. It took more than a year to receive all those readings back on Earth, so we could learn more about the distant dwarf planet.

Scientists are still analysing information from that visit. And until recently, the features they were studying didn’t have official names. Enter the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Among the IAU’s duties is naming things in space.

On 7 September, the IAU released 14 names for important features on Pluto, including Sputnik Planitia. The area is named after Sputnik 1, the first space satellite.

Of course, there’s still plenty of naming to be done. The planet Pluto is named after a god of the underworld in Roman mythology, so many features on Pluto are named after figures from the underworlds of different cultures, as well as spacecraft (including Sputnik!), and explorers. These categories mean there are plenty of names to choose from!

Meanwhile, New Horizons is still hurtling through space. Its next mission is to visit a 20 kilometre wide space rock known as (486958) 2014 MU69. After that, it will continue to observe space rocks on its journey out of the solar system and into deep space.

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