Enceladus, a frozen moon orbiting Saturn, has attracted scientists’ attention because of plumes of water vapor erupting from its icy crust, which is potential evidence of a subsurface ocean. And the ocean means that it has the potential for life (at least life as we know it). Now NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has spotted an unparalleled plume.
Plumes of water vapor from Enceladus blast through frozen volcanoes that form above cracks in the ice. These plumes can extend hundreds of miles from the surface. When a team of NASA researchers looked more closely at the new JWST data, they realized that one plume near the moon’s south pole was much larger than any other. At over 9,500 kilometers (6,000 miles) across, it is the largest spray of water ever seen in space. It is 20 times the size of Enceladus itself and extends far enough to easily cover the distance from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires. As Enceladus continued to orbit Saturn, this plume of water vapor formed a ghostly halo around the planet.
“This level [water] Activity… identifies Enceladus as the major source of water across the Saturnian system,” Stady It has been accepted for publication in Nature Astronomy.
The halo (or ring) that Enceladus leaves in its wake actually creates most of Saturn’s electron ring, its largest outer ring. Although Enceladus was suspected to have been geologically active since Voyagers visited Saturn, NASA researchers analyzing data from the Cassini orbiter and Herschel Observatory first confirmed the existence of the geysers in 2005. In 2019, additional Cassini observations showed that the e-ring formed into It is largely powered by water vapor plumes flowing from Enceladus, which explains why this ring appears much fainter and hazy than others.
Cassini and mass spectrometer flybys also found water vapor widespread throughout the rings of Saturn and its other moons. Webb added to Cassini’s legacy by providing a broader view of the Saturn system. It now gives unprecedented insight into how water vapor from emissions like these contribute to the torus and the overall water supply of Saturn and its rings.
Webb’s instruments were able to see that most of the water droplets from Enceladus’ regular vapor do not remain inside the torus near the moon. Its 33-hour orbit – just 1.37 Earth days – means it sprays water vapor widely around Saturn. It does so especially quickly, with the Mega Bloom spraying an astonishing 300 liters (79 gallons) every second. Webb’s backcast observations indicate that only about 30 percent of that water remains in the ring, while 70 percent is dispersed throughout the Saturnian system. Meaning, Enceladus supplies the system with most of its water.
What’s in the water?
Webb’s observations were made using an integrated field unit (IFU), which can simultaneously image an object and see the spectra it gives off, which tell us what material the object is made of. The IFU is part of Webb’s near-infrared spectrometer (NIRSpec) instrument, which can see molecular emissions across a wide range of the infrared spectrum. Infrared emissions coming from the plume revealed, not only that it consists of water vapor, but how far the water vapor extends from the surface, revealing its massive size.
The NIRSpec data was also examined for organic molecules such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, ethane, and methanol, which could be potential indicators of life or vital processes. There was no trace of these organic materials in the column.
The researchers also said Stady.
Although there is no organic material in the supergiant, Enceladus’ steam plumes are thought to originate from hydrothermal vents in the depths of the subsurface ocean. These formations are also found on Earth’s sea floor, where hot water heated by subterranean magma flows into its frigid ocean. Enceladus’ core generates enough heat to keep the water liquid.
Perhaps one day, another volcanic eruption captured by Webb could show evidence of life in the hidden world of its surroundings. Enceladus has already been steaming water Found that they contain organic compounds capable of reacting chemically to produce amino acids, the building blocks of life on Earth, and one day, we may see more potential signs of life emerge.
Elizabeth Raine Creature Writes. Her work has appeared on SYFY WIRE, Space.com, Live Science, Grunge, Den of Geek, and Forbidden Futures. When she’s not writing, she’s either shape-shifting, drawing, or masquerading as a character no one has ever heard of. Follow her on Twitter: @hravenrayne.
Listing image by NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, and G. Villanueva
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