James Webb discovers a massive plume of water on Enceladus

The water column is so large that the researchers initially questioned Webb’s data. But this turned out to be true. Enceladus – a small moon of Saturn – has water columns that are at least twenty times larger than the moon itself!

The presence of water plumes on Enceladus is not in and of itself new. It has been known for some time that the World Ocean is hidden beneath the thick ice sheet that covers the young moon. This ocean water sometimes rushes through cracks in the ice sheet. The Cassini space probe has previously shown that plumes of water created in this way can reach hundreds of kilometres.

web
But new observations from the James Webb Space Telescope now reveal that Cassini detected only small plumes of water. Because when Webb recently turned his eyes to Enceladus, he saw a column of water that reached 6,000 miles (or 9,656 kilometers). Just for imaging, Enceladus is 313 miles (or just over 500 kilometers) in diameter.

Here you can see the monstrous water column escaping from Enceladus’ south pole; The pillar is twenty times larger than Enceladus itself. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, G. Villanueva (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center), A. Pagan (STScI).

shocking
“When I first looked at the data, I thought it was wrong,” said researcher Geronimo Villanueva. “Discovering a water column more than 20 times larger than the moon itself was absolutely shocking.”

Speed
But not only the size of the column is impressive. The rate at which Enceladus loses water vapor through this water column is also very high. For example, measurements show that at least 300 liters of water vapor is sprayed into space per second. For the imagination: With this water flow rate, you can fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in just a few hours. Strange, when you consider that the same job with a garden hose would easily take more than two weeks.

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interaction
By the way, James Webb not only observed the water column itself, but also investigated the interaction between the water that Enceladus throws into space and Saturn. Observations reveal that the lateral water column feeds what is called a phase. “Enceladus’ orbit around Saturn is relatively short,” says Villanueva. It takes the Moon only 33 hours to complete one orbit around the gas giant. “As the moon orbits Saturn, it’s actually spewing water,” Villanueva continues. It results in a kind of donut-shaped water-filled halo around Saturn: the annulus. “In Webb’s notes, not only was there a giant plume, but we actually saw water everywhere.”

The monstrous water column feeds the ring, a donut-shaped halo filled with water around Saturn. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, L. Hustak (STScI), G. Villanueva (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center).

Webb’s observations reveal that the torus is constantly replenished by water vapor escaping from Enceladus’ surface. In addition, the data collected by Webb shows that about 30 percent of the water also remains in the torus, while the other 70 percent managed to escape.

Enceladus has been enjoying people’s attention for quite some time. And this is not for nothing. With a subterranean ocean, the Moon is seen as one of the best candidates for extraterrestrial life within our solar system. In the future, scientists want to create a new mission to Enceladus in order to learn more about this moon and, for example, to determine how deep the subsurface ocean is, how thick the ice crust is, and so on. The data collected by James Webb – the most powerful space telescope currently available to humanity – on the Moon, now and in the near future, are very valuable. The data could be useful when planning future missions to Enceladus. After all, not only does the data yield new discoveries, but it also raises new questions that can be answered during future missions.

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Megan Vasquez

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