The roughly 1,000-kilometer-wide frozen basin dubbed Sputnik Planitia was on display when the New Horizons spacecraft tore past in July 2015 (SN: 12/26/15, p. 16). Previous studies have proposed that the region could be a scar left by an impact with interplanetary debris (SN: 12/12/15, p. 10).
Sputnik Planitia sits in a cold zone, a prime location for ice to build up, planetary scientist Douglas Hamilton of the University of Maryland in College Park and colleagues calculate. Excess ice deposited early in the planet’s history would have led to a surplus of mass. Gravitational interactions between Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, slowed the planet’s rotation until that mass faced in the opposite direction from Charon. Once Charon became synced to Pluto’s rotation — it’s always over the same spot on Pluto — gravity would have held Sputnik Planitia in Pluto’s cold zone, attracting even more ice. As the ice cap grew, the weight could have depressed Pluto’s surface, creating the basin that exists today.