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NASA's James Webb Telescope spots Saturn's moon blasting 'huge plumes' of life-containing water into space

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NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has glimpsed the moon spraying a "huge plume" of watery vapour far into space, which researchers believe very likely contains chemical components necessary for life

Space is astounding. Every day, scientists make amazing, momentous discoveries that leave us the ones stuck on Earth a little more in awe. One such latest discovery has been made on Saturn's icy moon Enceladus. NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has glimpsed the moon spraying a "huge plume" of watery vapour far into space. Researchers believe that this plume very likely contains chemical components necessary for life. 

The eruption was detected by the James Webb Space Telescope in November 2022 and was presented at a conference at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore on May 17.

As per Nature.com, Sara Faggi, a planetary astronomer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said the plume is "immense". 

She said that a comprehensive research paper on this significant event is currently pending. 

Is this the first time scientists spotted these water spouts?

This may come as a surprise, but this isn't actually the first time scientists have seen Enceladus spouting water into space. 

However, the JWST's wider perspective and higher sensitivity have added to the amazement. It revealed that the jets of vapour extend much deeper into space than previously thought, surpassing the moon's own span multiple times. Enceladus has a diameter of approximately 313 miles (504 kilometres).

When did scientists first observe Enceladus' watery eruptions?

As per Space.com, the original discovery of Enceladus' watery eruptions dates back to 2005 when NASA's Cassini spacecraft observed icy particles being propelled through large cracks on the moon's surface known as "tiger stripes." 

The intensity of these blasts is so powerful that the ejected material forms one of Saturn's rings.

What is so special about water being spouted into space?

Analysis of the jets revealed the presence of methane, carbon dioxide, and ammonia—organic molecules that contain the necessary building blocks for life.

In fact, researchers proposed in a study published last year in The Planetary Science Journal that some of these gases might be produced by life itself, emanating from deep within Enceladus.

Additionally, the water on Enceladus supports the possibility of life. While the moon is covered in a thick layer of water ice, measurements of its rotation indicate the presence of a vast hidden ocean beneath the frozen surface.

Scientists believe that the water jets detected by the JWST and Cassini originate from hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor. This hypothesis is supported by the presence of silica in the vapour plumes — a common component of planetary crusts.

Missions to find alien life on Saturn's icy moon Enceladus

To gain confirmation of the alien life and more, NASA scientists are currently discussing future missions to Enceladus to search for signs of life. 

One proposed mission is the Enceladus Orbilander, which would orbit the moon for about six months, traversing through its watery plumes and collecting samples. The spacecraft would then transform into a lander and descend onto the icy moon's surface, equipped with instruments to weigh, and analyse molecules, and even a DNA sequencer and microscope. Cameras, radio sounders, and lasers would remotely explore the moon's surface.

Another mission concept involves deploying an autonomous "snake robot" called the Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor into the submerged depths of Enceladus. This robot, equipped with cameras and lidar, would navigate the unknown environment of Enceladus' ocean floor in search of signs of life.

(With inputs from agencies)


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