Enceladus, an ice-covered ocean moon of Saturn, has always been a topic of interest to scientists ever since the Cassini spacecraft discovered plumes of water vapor erupting from geysers on its surface almost 20 years ago. Recently, the James Webb Space Telescope has caught sight of the largest plume yet, providing direct evidence of how the plumes feed into Saturn’s icy rings.

Discovery of the Plume

The James Webb Space Telescope measured an eruption of water vapor punching at least 10,000 kilometers (over 6,000 miles) out into space, which is around 20 times the size of Enceladus itself. This has given scientists an unprecedented glimpse into how the moon’s geysers supply material to Saturn’s icy rings. The telescope’s sensitive eye has helped researchers map a plume more than 20 times the diameter of the moon, which extended far beyond what they could have imagined. The eruption rate of the plume was ascertained to be 300 liters (79 gallons) per second, roughly two bathtubs’ worth of water per second.

Contribution to Saturn’s Ring System and Possibility of Life

The geysers on Enceladus generate a diffuse and fuzzy donut-shaped ring, or torus, of microscopic frozen 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 Enceladus’s orbit. The plumes are probably too diffuse to detect possible molecular signs of life that scientists hoped might be collected by flying through them. However, this helps narrow down where and how to look for biomolecules when astrobiology missions reach the icy moon. The team also detected something that could be cyanide compounds, which although poisonous, could have played a key role in the emergence of life on Earth. If it is on the surface of Enceladus, its presence would be very intriguing.

Enceladus is one of the most dynamic objects in the Solar System and is a prime target in humanity’s search for life beyond Earth. The James Webb Space Telescope’s observations of Enceladus have yielded valuable insights into the moon’s geysers and their contribution to Saturn’s ring system. The telescope’s sensitivity has enabled researchers to capture the largest water plume yet, providing direct evidence of how the plumes feed into the torus. The team hopes to return to Enceladus for a longer look, which could yield more clues about the possibility of life on Enceladus.

Space

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