Why it matters: Researchers have mostly used the James Webb Space Telescope to observe distant galaxies and cosmic structures in outer space, but the NASA-ESA spacecraft can also provide new insights about our own solar system. In particular, Enceladus and its unusual water system are a potentially major target for current and future Webb observations.
NASA scientists have recently used the James Webb Space Telescope to detect a “surprisingly large” water plume coming out of Enceladus, the sixth largest moon of Saturn and the 19th largest in the solar system. The water vapor plume spans more than 6,000 miles despite the fact that Enceladus is just 313 miles across.
Enceladus is an interesting target for observation and scientific research as the moon contains a global reservoir of salty water hidden between its icy outer crust and the inner rocky core. Ice particles mixed with water vapor and organic compounds are ejected through geyser-like volcanoes in crevices known as “tiger stripes.”
As NASA’s Geronimo Villanueva highlights, the newly detected water plume is almost a “shocking” discovery as it’s more than 20 times larger than the size of the moon which originated it. The plume is released from a region at Enceladus southern pole, and it extends far beyond its origin point.
Length aside, the water plume is also interesting for the rate at which water vapor is coming out: about 79 gallons per second. The plume could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in just a couple of hours, NASA estimates, while a garden hose here on Earth would take more than two weeks to achieve the same.
After leaving Enceladus’ surface, the water plume follows the moon’s relatively quick orbit around Saturn (just 33 hours). While orbiting the gas giant, the moon and its water emission leaves a donut-shaped halo in their wake. The watery donut is located next to the “E-ring,” which is the outermost and widest ring in Saturn’s complex and fascinating ring system.
By analyzing data collected through the telescope, astronomers have determined that roughly 30 percent of the water ejected from Enceladus stays in orbit around Saturn, while the remaining 70 percent escapes to supply the larger “Saturnian system of water.”
NASA scientists will keep observing Enceladus with Webb’s powerful instruments in the coming years, getting new data and making new discoveries to prepare future exploration missions.