Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, and G. Villanueva (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center). Image Processing: A. Pagan (STScI).
The James Webb Space Telescope has mapped a plume of water vapor from Saturn’s moon Enceladus that stretches for more than 10,000 kilometers, almost the distance between Los Angeles, California, and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Not only is this the first time such a water ejection has been observed at such a great distance, but the Webb also gives scientists a direct view, for the first time, of how this ejection feeds the water supply of the entire world. the Saturn system and its rings, report separate communications from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).
Enceladus, an ocean world just 505 kilometers in diameter, is one of our solar system’s “most exciting” science targets in the search for life beyond Earth.
Enceladus is one of Saturn’s moons, the sixth largest, although it only occupies a seventh of our Moon. Despite its size, it has become a key player in our solar system: it could be one of the most promising places to host life in outer space. It is a satellite completely covered by an ice sheet that could be hiding a giant ocean. There, the perfect ingredients for the cocktail of life could be mixed.
Its icy cover has cracks, known as “tiger stripes”, through which ice particles, water vapor and organic chemicals are escaping. From afar, they look like volcanoes that could be likened to geysers.
It is not the first time that these columns of water vapor have been observed. They were discovered in 2005 by the Cassini spacecraft, which spent more than ten years exploring the Saturn system and gave us the first images of Enceladus’s plumes. Not only that: he went through them to find out their composition.
So why has the discovery been so surprising? The answer is simple: never before has a water ejection been observed at such a far distance. In addition, the European Space Agency (ESA) declares that the speed at which the water vapor escapes is also impressive: it escapes at about 300 liters per second.
In the coming years, astronomers will draw on images from James Webb to observe and learn about this oceanic moon. It is capable of seeing outer space about 100 times better than its predecessor, Hubble. The latter sees well in the ultraviolet and visible spectrum, while the James Webb is capable of perfectly observing the Universe with infrared light.
The precision of James Webb allows us to go a step further: only by studying its images has it been possible to see what happens to all the water projected into space by Enceladus. 30 percent of the water remains inside a torus, a donut-shaped surface that lies next to one of Saturn’s rings. The remaining 70 percent escapes to provide water for the entire Saturn system. The discoveries from James Webb combined with those from the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer) mission will form the basis for new searches. ESA has plans to get closer to the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn in search of life.