Science & Environment

James Webb telescope: Icy moon Enceladus spews massive water plume

  • By Jonathan Amos
  • BBC Science Correspondent

Image supply, NASA/JPL/SSI

Image caption,

The 500km-wide Saturnian moon is roofed in ice

Astronomers have detected an enormous plume of water vapour spurting out into area from Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn.

The 504km-wide (313 miles) moon is well-known for its geysers, however it is a notably huge one.

The water stream spans some 9,600km – a distance equal to that of flying from the UK to Japan.

Scientists are fascinated by Enceladus as a result of its sub-surface salty ocean – the supply of the water – may maintain the essential circumstances to assist life.

Nasa’s Cassini mission (2004-2017) gathered tantalising proof of the required chemistry by frequently flying by the geysers and sampling the water with its devices – though it made no direct detection of biology.

The new super-plume was spied by the James Webb Space Telescope. Previous observations had tracked vapour emissions extending for lots of of kilometres, however this geyser is on a distinct scale.

Image supply, NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI/G.Villanueva et al

The European Space Agency (Esa) calculated the speed at which the water was gushing out at about 300 litres per second. This can be adequate to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in just some hours, Esa mentioned.

Webb was capable of map the plume’s properties utilizing its extraordinarily delicate Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) instrument.

The instrument confirmed how a lot of the ejected vapour (about 30%) feeds a fuzzy torus of water co-located with one in all Saturn’s well-known rings – its so-called E-ring.

“The temperature on the surface of Enceladus is minus 200 degrees Celsius. It’s freezing cold,” commented Prof Catherine Heymans, Astronomer Royal for Scotland.

“But on the core of the moon, we expect it is sizzling sufficient to warmth up this water. And that is what’s inflicting these plumes to come back out.

“We know deep in our personal ocean on planet Earth, in these type of circumstances, life can survive. So that is why we’re excited to see these huge plumes at Enceladus. They will assist us perceive a bit extra about what is going on on, and the way probably it’s that life may exist, but it surely’s not going to be life such as you and me – it will be deep-sea micro organism,” she advised the BBC.

Image supply, NASA/JPL/SSI

Image caption,

Cassini imaged – and flew by – the jets of Enceladus

Scientists have proposed a Nasa mission known as the Enceladus Orbilander that will attempt to resolve the open query about life.

As the identify suggests, this mission would each orbit the moon to pattern the geysers like Cassini did – however with extra superior expertise – after which land to pattern supplies on the floor.

If ever accredited, the Orbilander wouldn’t fly for a number of many years due to different priorities.

In the meantime, Nasa and Esa have probes heading to the ice-covered moons of Jupiter. These our bodies additionally comprise oceans of water at depth and will truly be higher candidates within the seek for extra-terrestrial life as a result of they are much bigger in dimension.

It’s not identified, for instance, how lengthy little Enceladus has held water within the all necessary liquid state to assist biology; the moon might have been frozen stable for a considerable portion of the historical past of the Solar System, denting its life credentials.

In distinction, Jupiter’s bulkier moons, resembling Europa (3,121km in diameter) and Ganymede (5,268km) have most likely had the warmth vitality to keep up water within the liquid state over a a lot better time period.

An in depth write-up of the Webb observations of Enceladus will seem shortly within the journal Nature Astronomy. A pre-print is offered here.


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