Scientists observed Saturn’s ice moon Enceladus shooting a “huge plume” of aqueous vapor far into space – a plume that likely contains many of the chemical elements for life.
Scientists described the outburst, which will be visible to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) in November 2022, at a symposium held on May 17 at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
“It’s immense,” Sara Faggi, a planetary astronomer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, remarked at the meeting, according to Nature.com. According to Faggi, a comprehensive research paper on the enormous plume is in the works.
The new telescope’s wider perspective and improved sensitivity revealed that the vapor jets shoot much further into space than previously thought — several times deeper, in fact, than the breadth of Enceladus itself. (Enceladus has a diameter of approximately 313 miles (504 kilometers).)
Enceladus’ watery explosions were discovered in 2005 when NASA’s Cassini satellite captured frozen particles blasting up through enormous lunar cracks known as “tiger stripes.” According to NASA, the blasts are so powerful that their material creates one of Saturn’s rings.
The jets were found to include methane, carbon dioxide, and ammonia – organic compounds comprising chemical building components required for the creation of life. An international team of researchers proposed last year in The Planetary Science Journal that some of these gases were created by life itself, burping forth methane deep beneath the surface of Enceladus.
Water is yet another piece of evidence supporting the possibility of life on Enceladus. Enceladus is completely covered in water ice, but studies of the moon’s rotation indicate that a large ocean lies beneath that icy shell. Scientists believe the water spurts detected by JWST and Cassini are caused by hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, a theory supported by the presence of silica, a typical component of planetary crusts, in the vapor plumes.
NASA scientists are planning future flights to look for indications of life on Enceladus. The projected Enceladus Orbilander would fly through the moon’s aqueous plumes and collect samples for around six months. The spaceship would next transform into a lander and touchdown on the cold moon’s surface. Orbilander would carry weighing and analyzing devices, as well as a DNA sequencer and a microscope. The Planetary Society reported that cameras, radio sounders, and lasers would be used to remotely scan the moon’s surface.
Another mission idea is to deploy an autonomous “snake robot” into the watery depths beneath Enceladus’ surface. The Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor robot has cameras and lidar on its head to aid it in navigating the unknown environment of Enceladus’ ocean floor.