Stunning new image reveals mysterious jets of Enceladus

NASA has revealed a stunning new view of the mysterious jets spewing material from Saturn's moon  Enceladus.

Experts say the subsurface ocean that lurks beneath the moon's icy crust has all the ingredients for life.

In the new image, the intriguing south-polar jets are viewed from afar, backlit by sunlight while the moon itself glows softly in reflected Saturn-shine.

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Experts say the subsurface ocean that lurks beneath the moon's icy crust has all the ingredients for life. In the new image, the intriguing south-polar jets are backlit by sunlight

Experts say the subsurface ocean that lurks beneath the moon's icy crust has all the ingredients for life. In the new image, the intriguing south-polar jets are backlit by sunlight

WHAT IT SHOWS 

This view looks toward the Saturn-facing hemisphere of Enceladus (313 miles or 504 kilometers across). 

North is up. 

The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on April 13, 2017.

The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 502,000 miles (808,000 kilometers) from Enceladus and at a sun-Enceladus-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 176 degrees. 

Image scale is 3 miles (5 kilometers) per pixel.

 

Observations of the jets taken from various viewing geometries provide different insights into these remarkable features. Cassini has gathered a wealth of information in the hopes of unraveling the mysteries of the subsurface ocean that lurks beneath the moon's icy crust.

This view looks toward the Saturn-facing hemisphere of Enceladus (313 miles or 504 kilometers across). 

North is up. 

The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on April 13, 2017.

The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 502,000 miles (808,000 kilometers) from Enceladus and at a sun-Enceladus-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 176 degrees.

 Image scale is 3 miles (5 kilometers) per pixel. 

The Cassini spacecraft is now several weeks into its grand finale mission, which will ultimately see it plunge into Saturn's atmosphere on September 15.

In its 13 years orbiting Saturn, the craft has obtained unprecedented insight on the planet and its moons, including Enceladus.

Earlier this month, another image showed a stunning look at the moon's north pole, dotted with craters and other strange markings.

This region is said to be entirely unlike the south pole, which is home to plumes of gas.

And, in April, scientists revealed the craft had discovered a 'missing ingredient' that now means Enceladus has nearly all the elements needed to support microbial life.

Hydrogen gas, discovered in high-powered jets of water during Cassini's deepest plunge, is now said to be 'a potential source of chemical energy that could support microbes on the seafloor of Enceladus,' researchers revealed during a NASA press conference.

The gas is the final piece of the puzzle following the discovery of water in an ocean under Enceladus's surface.

It means Saturn's sixth moon may have the same single-celled organisms with which life began on Earth, or more complex creatures still.

These organisms, still found on our planet within the darkest depths of our oceans, use hydrogen and carbon dioxide as fuel in a process known as 'methanogenesis.'

Hydrogen gas, discovered in high-powered jets of water during Cassini’s deepest plunge, is now said to be 'a potential source of chemical energy that could support microbes on the seafloor of Enceladus,' researchers revealed during a NASA press conference

Hydrogen gas, discovered in high-powered jets of water during Cassini's deepest plunge, is now said to be 'a potential source of chemical energy that could support microbes on the seafloor of Enceladus,' researchers revealed during a NASA press conference

WHAT IS ENCELADUS? 

Enceladus is Saturn's sixth largest moon, at 313 miles wide (504 kilometers).

Cassini observations have revealed hydrothermal activity, with vents spewing water vapour and ice particles out from a global ocean buried beneath the icy crust.

According to NASA, the plume includes organic compounds, volatile gases, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, salts, and silica.

And, Cassini recently discovered hydrogen gas, said to be the missing ingredient for life. 

While it may look 'inhospitable' like Saturn's other moons, the observations now it may have the elements needed to support life. 

'What is intriguing about the data at Enceladus, with the hydrogen detection, is that we are now able to determine how much energy would be available from the methanogenesis reaction at Enceladus,' said Chris Glein, Cassini INMS team associate at SwRI during the press conference.

'We have made the first calorie count in an alien ocean.'

This, the researcher explained, is a major step in assessing the moon's habitability.

While they haven't found life itself on Enceladus, Glein says the geochemical data 'could allow for this possibility.'

The building blocks of life on Enceladus are water, which no form of life on Earth can exist without, an energy source and six elements – carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur.

The last two of these, phosphorus and sulphur, have not yet been found in Enceladus's ocean – but scientists suspect them to be there because the rocky core of the moon is believed to be chemically similar to meteorites containing them.

This now paves the way for further explorations to find life in our solar system.

'Although we can't detect life, we've found that there's a food source there for it,' said Hunter Waite, lead author of the Cassini study.

'It would be like a candy store for microbes.' 

Cassini observations have revealed hydrothermal activity, with vents spewing water vapour and ice particles out from a global ocean buried beneath the icy crust.

Earlier this month, researchers unexpectedly found the organic molecule methanol around it in groundbreaking research.

Researchers say the discovery suggests that material spewed from Enceladus undertakes a 'complex chemical journey' once vented into space. 

The Cardiff team say the unexpectedly large quantity of methanol may have two possible origins: either a cloud of gas expelled from Enceladus has been trapped by Saturn's magnetic field, or gas has spread further out into Saturn's E-ring.

It is the first time that a molecule from Enceladus has been detected with a ground-based telescope. 

Past studies of Enceladus have involved the NASA/ESA Cassini spacecraft, which has detected molecules like methanol by directly flying into the plumes. 

Recent work has found similar amounts of methanol in Earth's oceans and Enceladus's plumes.

In this study, Dr Jane Greaves of Cardiff University and Dr Helen Fraser of the Open University detected the bright methanol signature using the IRAM 30-metre radio telescope in the Spanish Sierra Nevada.

'This observation was very surprising since it was not the main molecule we were originally

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