In a groundbreaking discovery, scientists from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) have identified a mammoth plume of water vapor, spanning over 6,000 miles, gushing from Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
This observation was made using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and the plume’s enormity is tantamount to the distance between the U.S. and Japan.
Led by Dr. Christopher Glein, the team has unveiled this remarkable discovery as part of NASA JWST Cycle 1. The experts will probe the plume and the moon’s chemical compounds more in-depth in an effort to gauge Enceladus’s potential habitability.
Enceladus, a satellite known to have a subsurface ocean of liquid water, was under the observation of the Cassini spacecraft for 13 long years. This journey led to the revelation of the moon’s icy surface, which occasionally shoots out plumes of ice grains and water vapor into the cosmos.
“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,” said Dr. Glein, who is renowned for his expertise in extraterrestrial oceanography. “In the years since NASA’s Cassini spacecraft first looked at Enceladus, we never cease to be amazed by what we find is happening on this extraordinary moon.”
In this awe-inspiring expedition, the Near InfraRed Spectrograph of the Webb made noteworthy observations.
Geronimo Villanueva from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said: “When I was looking at the data, at first, I was thinking I had to be wrong, it was just so shocking to map a plume more than 20 times the diameter of the moon. The plume extends far beyond what we could have imagined.”
Webb’s sensitivity managed to unfold a new narrative about Enceladus. The moon, while orbiting Saturn in a brisk 33 hours, scatters water, forming a donut-like halo in its trail. The findings revealed that this mammoth plume permeates Saturn’s dense E-ring. The JWST data indicates that while about 30 percent of the water lingers in the moon’s wake, the other 70 percent drifts away to enrich the rest of the Saturnian system.
Dr. Silvia Protopapa, an icy bodies composition expert from SwRI, explained: “The Webb observations, for the first time, are visually illustrating how the moon’s water vapor plumes are playing a role in the formation of the torus. This serves as a stunning testament to Webb’s extraordinary abilities. I’m thrilled to be part of the Cycle 2 team as we initiate our search for new indications of habitability and plume activity on Enceladus.”
In light of these astounding revelations, Dr. Glein and his team are gearing up to conduct further studies on Enceladus using the JWST in the upcoming year.
“We will search for specific indicators of habitability, such as organic signatures and hydrogen peroxide,” explained Dr. Glein. “Hydrogen peroxide is particularly interesting because it can provide much more potent sources of metabolic energy than what we previously identified. Cassini didn’t give us a clear answer on the availability of such strong oxidants on Enceladus.”
This new endeavor will enhance the potential to spot signs of habitability on the surface and will amplify the signal-to-noise ratio up to ten times compared to Cycle 1. Recognizing the temporal variability of plume outgassing is crucial for future planetary missions targeting the plume.
“Webb can serve as a bridge between Cassini and the proposed search-for-life mission, Orbilander,” said Dr. Glein. He expressed that after Cycle 2, we might have a clearer understanding of whether ocean samples are widely distributed across Enceladus’s surface, or concentrated near the south pole.
“These next observations could help us determine if Orbilander can access ocean samples near the equator, which may help us get back to Enceladus sooner,” said Dr. Glein, expressing the team’s enthusiasm and hope for the subsequent explorations.
This momentous discovery underscores not only our advancing technological capabilities but also our relentless pursuit of unraveling the mysteries of our universe. The towering plume of water vapor on Enceladus offers a captivating glimpse into what lies beyond our earthly domain, raising the fascinating possibility of life existing in the far reaches of our solar system. As scientists delve further into these investigations, we eagerly await the revelations that lie ahead.
Saturn’s moon Enceladus is one of the most intriguing objects in our solar system due to its geologic activity and potential habitability.
Discovered in 1789 by William Herschel, it’s the sixth-largest moon of Saturn, with a diameter of about 500 kilometers (roughly 310 miles), making it small enough to fit within the length of the United Kingdom.
Enceladus is one of the brightest objects in our solar system due to its surface being composed of mostly clean, fresh ice, which reflects nearly 100% of the sunlight that strikes it. This icy surface is believed to sit atop a global ocean of liquid water.
Enceladus is geologically active, with the most evident sign being the plumes of water vapor that spray into space from its surface. These plumes originate from the so-called “tiger stripes” near the moon’s south pole – these are warm fissures in the icy crust, where the internal heat of Enceladus escapes.
The Cassini mission, run by NASA, ESA (European Space Agency), and ASI (Italian Space Agency), made the groundbreaking discovery that a salty ocean exists beneath Enceladus’s icy surface. This liquid water ocean likely covers the entire moon, sitting between the core and the ice.
Enceladus has also shown signs of hydrothermal activity. Analysis of the moon’s plumes by the Cassini spacecraft detected molecular hydrogen, a potential sign of hydrothermal reactions between the moon’s rocky core and its ocean. This type of reaction is known to support microbial life at the bottom of Earth’s oceans.
Given the presence of a global ocean, heat, and organic molecules, Enceladus is considered one of the best places to look for extraterrestrial life within our solar system.
The plumes from Enceladus are responsible for creating Saturn’s E-ring, as the moon spews out icy particles that then orbit Saturn.
Enceladus orbits Saturn at a distance of 238,000 kilometers (roughly 148,000 miles), closer than our Moon orbits Earth. Its orbit is kept stable due to a 2:1 mean-motion orbital resonance with another of Saturn’s moons, Dione. This means that for every orbit Dione completes, Enceladus completes two.
Remember that much of what we know about Enceladus comes from the Cassini mission, which explored the Saturn system from 2004 until its deliberate plunge into Saturn in 2017. As of my knowledge cut-off in September 2021, additional exploration missions like the James Webb Space Telescope will provide even more exciting insights into this intriguing moon.
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), often dubbed as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, is one of the most ambitious space observatories ever constructed.
JWST is an international collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). It’s named after James E. Webb, who served as Undersecretary of State and Administrator of NASA from 1961 to 1968 and was a major advocate for space exploration.
As of my last knowledge cutoff in September 2021, the launch was scheduled for December 2021. The JWST will be positioned near the second Lagrange point (L2), approximately 1.5 million kilometers (about 930,000 miles) from Earth – a position that allows it to stay in line with the Earth as it orbits the Sun.
The primary science goals of JWST are to study the formation of stars and galaxies, understand the formation of stellar and planetary systems, and investigate the potential for life in other planetary systems.
JWST features a range of technologies and instruments that far surpass the capabilities of the Hubble Space Telescope. Its primary mirror, at 6.5 meters (21 feet) in diameter, is over two and a half times larger than Hubble’s, allowing it to collect significantly more light.
JWST is primarily an infrared observatory, allowing it to see through dust clouds where stars are born, observe distant galaxies whose light has been redshifted into the infrared part of the spectrum, and study objects within our own solar system in extraordinary detail.
JWST has four main instruments: The Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam), the Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec), the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), and the Fine Guidance Sensor/Near InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (FGS/NIRISS). These instruments will allow astronomers to perform a wide range of observations.
JWST features a large, five-layer sunshield that is vital for its operation. This sunshield protects the telescope from the heat and light of the Sun, Earth, and Moon, keeping its instruments cooled down enough to observe faint infrared emissions.
The JWST represents a major leap forward in our capabilities to observe the universe, and the scientific community eagerly awaits the wealth of data and discoveries it will generate.
Image Credit: NASA