Right: An artist's rendition of what we may see when New Horizons flies by Pluto. Left: The best image that we have of Pluto and its moon, Charon, to date. Photo by NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

There are all kinds of families, and every family is different. Some are very close and familiar, others only see each other from time to time, and still others are entirely cold and distant. Of course, it's usually not all or nothing—most everyone has at least one family member that they know intimately and one family member that they hardly know at all.

Ultimately, the same can be said about planets and solar systems.

For example, we know Mars, one of our closest kinsmen, rather well. We have mapped the craters that dot the surface. We have seen the most delicate details of Valles Marineris, and we have sampled the rusty dust that coats all the features of the planet. If that's not enough, we have detailed images that allow us to scrutinize and name every hill and valley.

The same cannot be said for tiny Pluto.

This icy world is mostly a mystery. When we peer at it with even our most advanced technology, we only see a indistinct blob. Indeed, even when we look at the system with the camera of the New Horizons space probe (which is currently racing towards Pluto at breakneck speed), the planet is still only three pixels across. That's because Pluto is absurdly small, and it's ridiculously far from the Sun. In fact, it's so far away (Pluto is 40 times farther from the Sun than the Earth) that it takes 248 Earth-years to orbit the Sun just one time.

As the SETI Institute notes, this makes for a pretty terrible view: "Currently, the best images of Pluto from the Hubble Space Telescope provide just a hint of what might be in store for the New Horizons cameras. It shows a world marked by sharp contrasts, with some areas as dark as asphalt and others as bright as snow." But beyond a few light and dark areas, the world is featureless and undefinable.

However, the New Horizons spacecraft is quickly approaching Pluto. It's speeding ahead 8.6 miles (14 kilometers) every second. And as it approaches, Pluto will come into view and, for the first time, we will truly see the little world at the outer reaches of our solar system.

Although this will be an amazing experience (and a wonderful accomplishment), it does come with a series of issues. One of the problems is, what do we name all of the new features that we uncover? Fortunately, the scientists working on the project have a plan, and they would like your help.

The New Horizons team is working with the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the official organization that is in charge of naming cosmic objects, in order to allow the public to name Pluto's features. They have created a website called "Our Pluto" where you can suggest names and vote for the ones you like.

Voting ends on April 7, so you have a bit of time to consider your selections. You can head here to cast your vote.


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