JWST Discovers Wild 6K Mile Water Plume Gushing From Saturn's Moon, Why This Matters

hero satrun moon enceladus
NASA's James Webb Space Telescope has captured data regarding a water vapor plume from Saturn's moon Enceladus, which spans an incredible 6,000 miles. The detection of an immense water emission of this nature is the first seen over such a far-reaching distance. It also gives scientists an idea of how an emission like this can supply water for Saturn's entire system and its rings.

Scientists and astronomers have known for some time that jets of ice and water vapor emanate from the south pole of Enceladus. The plumes occur as geyser-like volcanos gush jets of ice particles, water vapor, and organic chemicals out of crevices, called 'tiger stripes', in the moon's icy outer crust . It also makes it one of the most exciting scientific targets in our solar system, according to NASA. Previously, observatories had captured images of jets hundreds of miles from Enceladus' surface. A new image from Webb, however, reveals a plume that is nearly the distance from Los Angeles, California to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

webb view enceladus plume
James Webb Space Telescope's view of water plume from Saturn's moon Enceladus.

"When I was looking at the data at first, I was thinking I had to be wrong," remarked the lead author of a new paper explaining the findings, Geronimo Villanueva of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "It was just so shocking to detect a water plume more than 20 times the size of the moon. The water plume extends far beyond its release region at the southern pole."

Not only was the extent of the plume impressive to researchers, but also the fact that the water vapor was "gushing out" at about 79 gallons per second. NASA says at this rate you could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in just a couple of hours, as opposed to filling it with a water hose here on Earth which would take more than 2 weeks.

Enceladus' orbit around Saturn only takes 33 hours. This quick orbital pace leads to the moon and its jets "basically spitting off water, leaving a halo, almost like a donut, in its wake," Villanueva explained. He added that not only was there a very large plume, but water was everywhere.

enceladus water emission spectrum

Astronomers have determined that about 30 percent of the water stays within the torus, which is co-located in Saturn's outermost and widest ring. The other 70 percent escapes the torus and supplies the rest of the Saturnian system with water.

"Right now, Webb provides a unique way to directly measure how water evolves and changes over time across Enceladus' immense plume, and as we see here, we will even make new discoveries and learn more about the composition of the underlying ocean," remarked co-author Stefanie Milam at NASA Goddard. "Because of Webb's wavelength coverage and sensitivity, and what we've learned from previous missions, we have an entire new window of opportunity in front of us."

The research team's findings can be viewed on the Nature Astronomy website.
Tags:  space, NASA, moon, saturn, jwst