Astronomers have detected a massive plume of water vapor rising from Enceladus, a small moon of Saturn considered one of the most promising places for finding life beyond Earth.
The record-breaking plume reached nearly 6,000 miles into space – covering the distance between Ireland and Japan – and poured water into the void at an estimated rate of 300 liters per second.
Enceladus, which harbors an ocean of salty water deep under its icy outer crust, is known to spew water vapor into space, but this is the first time such a massive ejection has been seen erupting from a 300-mile-wide moon.
“We were really touched [by] “We weren’t sure what to expect,” said Geronimo Villanueva, first author of the study and a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
Researchers observed Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) last November. The images, taken with the telescope’s near-infrared spectrometer, captured what scientists described as an “unusually intense plume.”
Measurements taken by the telescope show that Enceladus was losing 300 kilograms of water per second in the plume, enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in two hours.
The observations show the power of JWST in understanding the ocean world in detail, the researchers wrote in a paper accepted for publication in Nature Astronomy. They add that the telescope opens “a new window for exploration of Enceladus… while preparing for future missions.”
Enceladus is described as an ocean world because astronomers believe that a global ocean lies beneath its icy terrain. Previous observations of Saturn’s moon have detected plumes of water vapor, carrying ice particles and organic chemicals, geyser-like erupting through surface cracks known as tiger stripes.
Because Enceladus orbits Saturn so quickly, completing an orbit around the planet in little more than one Earth day, water vapor flows into the moon’s orbit where it forms a giant doughnut-like ring called an annulus. According to astronomers’ data from the telescope, about 30% of the water flowing from Enceladus feeds the torus with the rest exiting into the vicinity of Saturn.
The observations build on the highly successful Cassini mission, which spent a decade exploring Saturn and its dozens of moons. The probe became the first to image the plumes emanating from Enceladus and to fly through streams of steam to sample their components.
In 2017, NASA scientists reported that Enceladus contains nearly all of the ingredients needed for life as we know it, including water, energy, and related chemistry. The energy source is thought to be similar to the undersea hot vents that teem with life on Earth. Future expeditions to the frozen ocean world aim to explore the thickness of the icy outer crust and the depth of the subterranean ocean.
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