James Webb Catches Saturn’s Moon Squirting

Squirtle Aqua Jet!

One of Saturn's weirdest and most fascinating moons has been caught by the James Webb Space Telescope spewing a gigantic plume of water vapor thousands of miles out from its icy surface and reader, we're living for it.

As NASA notes in a new blog, Saturn's small, watery moon Enceladus is no stranger to these kinds of outbursts. But until the JWST pointed its uber-sensitive scientific instruments at it, a plume of this magnitude had never been captured.

Enceladus is notably tiny, at just 313 miles across soaking wet — which it increasingly seems to be — making it just four percent the size of our Earth.

One can imagine the surprise at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, then, when they detected a plume shooting off it that spanned more than 6,000 miles, dwarfing the tiny moon and making up the distance it takes, as NASA notes, from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires.

"When I was looking at the data, at first, I was thinking I had to be wrong," Goddard's Geronimo Villanueva, the lead author of a recent paper published in the journal Nature Astronomy on the never-before-documented phenomenon, said. "It was just so shocking to detect a water plume more than 20 times the size of the moon."

Life-Like

The rate of the plume was also of particular interest to the researchers, as Webb was able to detect that it was gushing out at a whopping 79 gallons per second. That's thin coverage spread over 6,000 miles, of course, but NASA notes that it's enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in a few hours.

Enceladus itself is a pretty big deal because, as NASA discovered back in 2021, its unique hydrothermal vents could "very likely" host microorganisms like those we have on Earth, making it one of the most prominent potential sites for extraterrestrial life in our Solar System.

The agency's Cassini mission, which was the first to ever orbit Saturn, compiled troves of data on the iconically ringed planet and found that the plumes Enceladus shoots off contain the right compounds for the building blocks of life.

It's no surprise why NASA is so invested in taking a closer look at this moon — and there's no doubt that this giant water spout was a pleasant surprise.

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