Above Enceladus: James Webb discovers a giant geyser on Saturn’s moon

Scientists have recorded how a huge geyser of water vapor bursts far into space on Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus. Scientists believe that this geyser contains chemical components necessary for the formation of life. They described in detail the eruption that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) recorded in November 2022. The discovery was unveiled at the Space Telescope Science Institute conference in Baltimore on May 17.

Enceladus. Source: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

“It’s huge,” Sarah Fudge, a planetary astronomer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, described the geyser so briefly at the conference. 

Geysers on Enceladus have been known to scientists for a long time. Scientists first learned about Enceladus’ water geysers in 2005, when NASA’s Cassini spacecraft recorded ice particles flying through large faults called “tiger stripes”. The explosions of water vapor are so powerful that their material forms one of Saturn’s rings.

But James Webb’s ultra-sensitive instruments have shown in great detail that jets of water vapor fly much further into space than previously thought. According to calculations, geysers have a height higher than the diameter of Enceladus, which is 504 km.

Features of the Enceladus Orbilander mission

Water is another plausible proof of the possible existence of life on Enceladus. This moon of Saturn is completely covered with a thick layer of water ice. But there is a hypothesis that a huge ocean is hiding under this frozen crust. Scientists believe that the water bursts recorded by JWST and Cassini originate from hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean — this hypothesis is confirmed by the presence of silica, a common component of the planetary crust, in plumes of steam. 

NASA scientists are discussing future missions to Enceladus to detect signs of life on it. The proposed Enceladus Orbilander will orbit the Moon for about six months, flying through its water plumes and collecting samples. Then the spacecraft will turn into a lander and descend to the surface of the icy Moon. On board Orbilander will have devices for weighing and analyzing molecules, as well as a DNA sequencer and a microscope. Cameras, radars and lasers will remotely scan the surface of the Moon, according to The Planetary Society.

Earlier we reported on how the last key component of life was discovered on Enceladus.

According to Nature

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