The James Webb Space Telescope has imaged one of Saturn’s most promising moons, Enceladus, with a giant column of steam escaping from its subsurface ocean through icy cracks on the surface. According to researchers, the largest geyser ever observed may contain the chemicals of life. The unusual burst, recorded by James Webb in November 2022, was revealed a few days earlier during a conference at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which was echoed by the press.Nature‘.
Already in 2005, NASA’s Cassini probe observed how icy particles were ejected into space in the form of jets emanating from deep cracks in the icy surface of Enceladus. But the new data reaches farther into space this time than ever before, with a distance equivalent to the diameter of Saturn’s moon, 504 km in diameter.
“It’s huge,” Sarah Fauci, a planetary astronomer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said during the briefing. Full details of the discovery will be published in a scientific paper “very soon,” the researcher said.
A place for life?
Enceladus has fascinated astronomers for years because it is one of the few ‘sea worlds’ in the solar system and one of the best places to look for extraterrestrial life. Decades of observations and measurements already show that under a thick layer of ice on its surface, about 30 to 40 km thick, Enceladus is completely surrounded by a large ocean.
Recent evidence indicating the presence of hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, similar to those found on Earth, leads scientists to believe that these waters could be a suitable haven for life. Not only in microbial form, but also from more complex animals.
Marine material ejected from Enceladus’ geysers through fractures known as ‘tiger belts’ around the moon’s south pole provides a direct link to this potential extraterrestrial ecosystem. Plumes observed by Cassini contained silica particles that could have been carried by strong currents from the ocean floor. Cassini flew through these worms several times, measuring the ice and chemicals that are beneficial to life, such as methane, carbon dioxide and ammonia.
Within five minutes
But millions of kilometers from Enceladus, James Webb had to discover something the Cassini mission had failed to see from its front-row seat. The sensitivity of the new telescope’s instruments was, in fact, able to catch particles thrown into space by geysers far from the Moon, surprising scientists.
James Webb briefly ‘peeked’ at Enceladus last November 9, collecting data for just 4.5 minutes. A short time, but long enough to reveal the presence of an immense and icy column of water vapor from the surface into space. In a future paper reported by Foggi, the exact amount of ejected water and the temperature at which it was found will be known.
James Webb, Foggy explains, also analyzed the spectrum of sunlight reflected from Enceladus and found evidence of several chemicals, including water, and other compounds in Saturn’s moon ocean that could indicate geological or biological activity. And we have many more surprises,” the researcher announced.
Over the next few months, James Webb will focus on Enceladus again, and this time he’ll do it for longer, according to a list of observations to be made during the space telescope’s second round of work. Their goal will be to find chemical and organic compounds associated with habitat, such as hydrogen peroxide. Together with the recently revealed data, the ones obtained in the future will be definitive for the development of a future mission to land on Enceladus and for the first time, ‘in situ’.
Other icy moons in our planetary system will also receive space telescope attention. During the same conference, in fact, planetary scientist Geronimo Villanueva from the Goddard Space Flight Center announced that James Webb had also detected carbon dioxide on Jupiter’s moon Europa. A very exciting one, since carbon and oxygen are the two essential elements for life on Earth. NASA will launch a mission to Europa next year to explore that ocean world in more detail. “This is definitely a new era in the exploration of the solar system,” Villanueva said.
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