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Geyser seen spraying 6,000 miles into space from Saturn’s moon: ScienceAlert

Geyser seen spraying 6,000 miles into space from Saturn’s moon: ScienceAlert

Nearly 20 years ago, the Cassini spacecraft detected plumes of water vapor rising from geysers on the surface of Enceladus, in the ice-covered vicinity of Saturn. moon It was a hot topic.

The James Webb Space Telescope has seen the largest plume yet. The telescope’s amazingly sensitive eye has measured eruptions of water vapor that hit at least 10,000 kilometers (more than 6,000 miles) into space. This is about 20 times the size of Enceladus itself, and it’s given scientists an unprecedented glimpse into how Enceladus formed the moonGeysers provide material for Saturn’s icy rings.

“When I was looking at the data, at first, I was thinking I must be wrong, it was pretty horrible to map a column over 20 times the diameter the moon“,” says planetary scientist Geronimo Villanueva From NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“The column extends further than we ever imagined.”

A JWST NIRCam image showing the size of the plume imaged in November 2022. (NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, G. Villanueva / NASA GSFC, A. Pagan / STScI)

The hot springs discovered by Cassini in 2005 changed everything we thought about the cold moon: they were proof that Enceladus was not a solid frozen sphere, as previously thought, that beneath its thick icy crust lurks a global liquid ocean, held in liquids by heat. resulting from the constant push and pull of Saturn’s gravitational interaction.

Wherever there is liquid water, there may be life.

This is still an open question because traversing kilometers of ice on an alien world looking for what may be nothing more than microbes isn’t exactly easy. But Enceladus is interesting for other reasons, too — not least its contribution to Saturn’s ring system.

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in 2011Scientists using the Herschel Infrared Observatory have discovered that Enceladus isn’t just spewing water randomly into space. Their geysers generate a diffuse, fuzzy ring or ring of frozen microscopic particles, mostly water ice, with some traces of silicates, carbon dioxide, and ammonia. It is centered around the same location as Saturn’s E ring, the second outermost of Saturn’s rings, and the orbit of Enceladus.

Enceladus is embedded in Saturn’s E ring, as photographed by Cassini in 2006.NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

“Enceladus’ orbit around Saturn is relatively fast, with only 33 hours. While it orbits Saturn, the moon And its jets basically spit out water, leaving behind a halo, almost like a doughnut,” Villanueva explains. “In Webb’s notes, not only was the plume huge, but there was water absolutely everywhere.”

Water vapor is difficult to find in space because it tends to be transparent at most wavelengths. However, in the infrared, water vapor fluoresces, which is why the Herschel Infrared Observatory was able to detect the torus in 2011. The infrared telescope is a much more powerful infrared telescope than Herschel.

In November 2022, JWST collected just 4.5 minutes of data on Enceladus. That was enough to capture the largest plume anyone had ever seen erupt from it the moon Provide direct evidence of how to feed the shafts into the hoop.

Animation puts JWST observations in context with the ring and its location around Saturn. (Leah Hustak/STScI)

Based on this data, the team can ascertain the plume’s ejection rate. At the time of the observations, Enceladus was spewing water vapor at 300 liters (79 gallons) per second. This is approximately Two showers. Imagine the water pressure required to fill your bathtub in half a second. You probably won’t have a bathtub after that.

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The researchers also calculated that approximately 30 percent of the water vapor would remain in the ring. The remaining 70 percent provides the rest of the Saturnian system, including the icy rings and Saturn’s upper atmosphere.

Sadly, it appears that the plumes may be too diffuse to detect potential molecular signs of life that scientists had hoped could be gathered by flying through them. But this helps narrow down where and how to look for biomolecules when astrobiology missions arrive on the icy moon.

And on the surface of Enceladus, the team discovered something that could be cyanide compounds. Although cyanide is toxic, it could have played a major role in the emergence of life on Earth, and if it were on Enceladus, its existence would be very interesting.

The JWST spectrum shows the emission-identifying signature of water. (NASA, ESA, Canadian Space Agency, STScI, L. Hustak / STScI, G. Villanueva / NASA GSFC)

For its second round of observations, JWST will return to Enceladus for a longer look. Scientists hope this will lead to more clues about the possibility of life on Enceladus. In particular, researchers will be looking for hydrogen peroxideIt is a biomolecule with a wide range of functions.

“Enceladus is one of the most dynamic bodies in the solar system and a major target in humanity’s search for life beyond Earth,” says geochemist Christopher Glenn From the Southwest Research Institute.

“In the years since NASA’s Cassini spacecraft first looked at Enceladus, we never cease to be amazed at what we find happening on this extraordinary moon.”

Search accepted natural astronomyPrimary printing is available via the NASA website.