Saturn’s moon Enceladus has caught the attention of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) by releasing a massive cloud of water vapor. This plume is larger than any previously observed on the moon and may contain the necessary chemicals for life coming from below its icy surface.
Back in 2005, a NASA spacecraft named Cassini found icy particles erupting from Enceladus’s subsurface ocean, seeping through cracks in its surface.
However, JWST has revealed that the material is being sprayed much farther into space than previously believed. In fact, it extends many times beyond the actual size of Enceladus itself.
During a conference held on May 17th at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, Sara Faggi, a planetary astronomer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, described the discovery as “immense.”
She refrained from sharing further details, mentioning an upcoming scientific paper that will provide more information.
Jupiter’s Moon, Enceladus, among ‘ocean worlds’ that could sustain life
Enceladus captures the attention of scientists who study life beyond Earth. It stands out among the other planets and moons in our solar system because it is one of the rare “ocean worlds,” according to Nature.
This means that beneath its icy exterior, there lies a salty ocean, creating a potential habitat for extraterrestrial life forms. These organisms could potentially survive by harnessing the chemical energy found at hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor.
Plumes of water blasting thousands of kilometers above the surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus. The images were taken in visible light by NASA's Cassini spacecraft.
Image credit: NASA/JPL pic.twitter.com/G0l8zdHwF9
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What makes Enceladus even more intriguing is the material that shoots out from its surface, specifically through cracks called tiger stripes located near the moon’s southern pole.
These plumes provide a direct connection to the possibility of an extraterrestrial ecosystem. The particles of silica found in the plumes, which were likely carried up from the ocean floor by moving fluids, offer valuable insights.
The Cassini spacecraft, which flew through these plumes multiple times, collected data on ice grains and chemicals like methane, carbon dioxide, and ammonia that support life.
However, it was the James Webb Space Telescope, positioned 1.5 million kilometers away from Earth, that made a groundbreaking discovery.
Unlike Cassini, which observed ice grains close to the moon’s surface, JWST possesses a wider field of view and highly sensitive instruments capable of detecting faint signals of gases around Enceladus, Nature further explained.
The forthcoming scientific paper will provide detailed measurements regarding the amount of water being sprayed out and its temperature, as stated by Sara Faggi.
However, the plume is expected to have low density, resembling more of a spread-out, chilly cloud rather than a concentrated spray.