Ginormous Plume Spotted Erupting From Enceladus

The JWST data show a water vapor plume jetting from the southern pole of Enceladus, extending out 20 times the size of the moon itself. The inset, an image from the Cassini orbiter, emphasizes how small Enceladus appears in the JWST image compared to the water plume. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, and G. Villanueva (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center). Image Processing: A. Pagan (STScI).

The JWST is known for its ability to peer into our universe’s darkest and deepest reaches. However, it can also turn its sights closer to home. Doing exactly that, scientists were able to observe an impressive plume eruption. The JWST detected a more than 6,000-mile-long plume erupting from Saturn’s moon Enceladus, an ocean world that may be one of the best places for life to exist in our solar system outside of Earth. Like other ocean worlds, Enceladus can spew water, ice, and organic chemicals into space. The plumes originate from the ocean and escape through cracks, informally called tiger stripes, in the icy crust.

Geronimo Villanueva from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and collaborators were not only able to track where the water went after being ejected using the Near-Infrared Spectrograph instrument but also how fast. The water erupted at 79 gallons a second or 284,400 gallons an hour. This water then spread out around Saturn in a donut-like shape as Enceladus orbited the planet. Approximately 30% of the water remained within Saturn’s widest and outermost E-ring, leaving 70% to supply the rest of Saturn’s system. This is not the first time plumes have been detected. In fact, the Cassini orbiter even flew through one, allowing scientists to determine the subsurface ocean’s composition. However, this new finding constitutes the largest emission of water ever detected, opening the door to understanding the water supply for the entire saturnian system. The JWST will be the primary observation post for the saturnian system in the upcoming years, as it observes Enceladus and collects data that will help plan future missions to the ocean moon. READ MORE