Image: An artist's rendering of the water fountains on Enceladus being observed by the Cassini probe. Source : NASA/JPL-Caltech
The James Webb Space Telescope has spotted a giant ejection of water from under the surface of one of Saturn's moons, Enceladus. Scientists are trying to see signs of chemicals in a huge cloud that may indicate the presence of life. According to the journal Nature, this was announced on May 17 at a conference at the Space Telescope Science Institute.
Back in 2005, thanks to the observations of the automatic interplanetary apparatus Cassini, it turned out that fountains of water were beating from under the ice crust of Enceladus. But only now, with the help of the James Webb space telescope, it was possible to find out that water clouds extend for several radii of the satellite itself from its surface (the radius of Enceladus is 252.1 km).
Enceladus is covered with an icy crust, which, apparently, reaches several tens of kilometers thick. Below it is a salty ocean 10–30 km deep. It is of great interest to astrobiologists, as it could potentially support life due to the influx of energy from geothermal activity at the bottom of the ocean. In the composition of the waters of the ocean, the Cassini probe discovered substances such as methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide, which means, in principle, a favorable environment for the existence of living matter.
In the next cycle of observations on the James Webb, it is planned to devote more time to Enceladus. The researchers want to find out if there are traces in the water emissions that indicate geological or biological activity in the depths of the Enceladian ocean. In particular, scientists hope to see traces of organic matter and hydrogen peroxide.
The water ejections observed by James Webb are of low density and look more like a cloud than a fountain jet. This makes it difficult to search for signs of organic matter, and even more so the presence of life under the ice crust. It will be more likely to capture traces of organics from small ice particles located closer to the surface of Enceladus, as observed by the Cassini probe.
The James Webb telescope will also study other icy satellites of planets in the solar system. Thus, according to preliminary data reported at the conference, the telescope detected carbon dioxide on Jupiter's moon Europa. This is exciting for researchers, since carbon and oxygen are key chemical elements for the existence of organic life on Earth.