James Webb Space Telescope has captured a geysers of water vapor shot into space from Saturn‘s icy moon, Enceladus. This enormous plume likely contains many of the fundamental chemical ingredients for life as we know it on Earth.
Scientists detailed the eruption from November 2022 at a conference held at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore on May 17th. “It’s immense” said planetary astronomer Sara Faggi from NASA‘s Goddard Space Flight Center, during the conference.
This is not the first time scientists have observed Enceladus spraying vapor into space. However, the broader perspective and higher sensitivity of the new space telescope have shown that the vapor jets spread much farther into space than previously thought. The plumes extend into deep space, with sizes larger than Enceladus itself.
The space science community first noticed Enceladus’ vapor eruptions in 2005. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft captured the first images of icy particles rising through large lunar fissures called “tiger stripes”. The explosions are so powerful that their material forms one of Saturn’s rings, according to NASA.
Analysis has revealed that the jets contain methane, carbon dioxide, and ammonia, organic molecules containing chemical elements necessary for life’s development. It is even possible that some of these gases have been produced by life itself, as hypothesized in a study published last year in The Planetary Science Journal (rif.).
Scientific Interest in this Moon
The presence of water is another evidence of potential life on Enceladus. Saturn’s moon is completely covered by a thick layer of ice. However, measurements of the moon’s rotation suggest the presence of a vast hidden ocean beneath that crust. Scientists believe that the water geysers detected by James Webb and Cassini originate from hydrothermal sources at the bottom of Enceladus’ ocean. This hypothesis is supported by the presence of silica in the vapor plumes, a common ingredient in planetary crusts.
For all these reasons, scientists are discussing future missions to search for signs of life on Enceladus. The proposed Enceladus Orbilander would orbit around the moon for about six months, flying through its vapor plumes and collecting samples. Subsequently, the spacecraft would transform into a lander, descending onto the surface of the icy moon. The probe would carry instruments to weigh and analyze the molecules, as well as a DNA sequencer and a microscope.
Another proposed mission involves sending an autonomous “snake robot” into the watery depths beneath Enceladus’ surface. The robot, nicknamed Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor (EELS), would be equipped with cameras and lidar on its head to help navigate the unknown environment of the ocean floor of this mysterious and fascinating moon of the ringed planet.