James Webb telescope discovers gargantuan geyser on Saturn's moon, blasting water hundreds of miles into space

The ice moon Enceladus of Saturn was seen by the James Webb Space Telescope blasting a "huge plume" of liquid vapor into space; this plume may contain the building blocks for life.

Enceladus, an ice moon of Saturn, was observed blasting a "huge plume" of aqueous vapor into space. This plume presumably includes many of the chemical components necessary for life.

At a meeting on May 17 at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, scientists described the eruption, which the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be able to see in November 2022.

Planetary astronomer Sara Faggi of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center remarked at the conference, "It's immense," according to Nature.com. Faggi claims that a comprehensive scientific article on the enormous plume is forthcoming.

It's not the first time that Enceladus has been observed to eject water, but the new telescope's increased sensitivity and larger field of view revealed that the water jets travel far further into space than previously thought—deeper than the breadth of Enceladus itself. (Enceladus has a diameter of approximately 504 kilometers, or 313 miles.)

Scientists first became aware of Enceladus' liquid explosions in 2005, when NASA's Cassini probe observed frozen particles shooting up through wide lunar fissures known as "tiger stripes." According to NASA, the eruptions are so strong that one of Saturn's rings is formed from their debris.

Methane, carbon dioxide, and ammonia, organic compounds that comprise the chemical building blocks required for the emergence of life, were found in the jets, according to analysis. An international team of experts suggested in study published last year in The Planetary Science Journal that it's even feasible that some of these gases were created by life itself, burping forth methane deep under the surface of Enceladus.

Another piece of evidence supporting the existence of life on Enceladus is water. Despite having a thick coating of water ice covering the entire surface of Enceladus, studies of the moon's rotation indicate that an enormous ocean may be concealed beneath the icy crust. The presence of silica, a typical component of planetary crusts, in the vapor plumes supports the theory that the spurts of water detected by JWST and Cassini originate from hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor.

Future return missions to search for indications of life on Enceladus are being discussed by NASA scientists. The projected Enceladus Orbilander would spend around six months orbiting the moon while taking samples while flying through its aqueous plumes. The spaceship would next change into a lander and touchdown on the moon's frozen surface. Orbilander would be equipped with a DNA sequencer, a microscope, and tools for weighing and analyzing molecules. The moon's surface would be remotely scanned by cameras, radio sounders, and lasers, according to The Planetary Society.

Another mission idea is to deploy a self-contained "snake robot" into Enceladus' subsurface ocean. The robot, known as the Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor, has cameras and lidar on its head to aid it in navigating the uncharted territory of the ocean floor of Enceladus.