Are aliens hiding on Saturn's MOON? NASA's spots a plume of water

Are aliens hiding on Saturn’s MOON? NASA’s James Webb spots a ‘surprisingly large’ plume of water coming from Enceladus – and it could be a sign of life

  • ‘Surprisingly large’ plume of water vapour is coming from the moon’s south pole
  • Researchers think its liquid ocean has the ‘key ingredients’ to harbor alien life
  • Saturn has over 100 moons – but Enceladus is the one with a liquid water ocean

If there are aliens hiding in our solar system, they could be on Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, according to a new study. 

NASA’s James Webb telescope has detected a ‘surprisingly large’ plume of water vapour coming from Enceladus’s south pole.  

Researchers say the plume spans more than 6,000 miles – nearly the distance from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires.

Saturn has more than 100 known moons, but Enceladus is the only one with a liquid water ocean, making it comparable to Earth. 

It’s unclear what’s causing the massive plume, although scientists think the ocean could be home to some sort of extraterrestrial life. 

A plume of water escaping from Saturn’s moon Enceladus extends 6,000 miles – nearly the distance from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires

Enceladus – Saturn’s sixth-largest moon – is a frozen sphere just 313 miles in diameter (about one-seventh the diameter of Earth’s moon). The moon is pictured in this image captured by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft

Enceladus appears in space as a beautiful sphere of white, covered by a layer of ice layer at least 12 miles thick. 

Enceladus: Quick facts 

Discovered: August 28 1789

Type: Ice moon

Diameter: 313 miles (504km)

Orbital period: 32.9 hours

Length of day: 32.9 hours

Mass: About 680 times less than Earth’s moon

Source: NASA 

It’s already known that jets of water and some solid particles such as ice crystal spout from fractures in the frozen surface called ‘tiger stripes’.

But scientists have been left surprised by the size of this particular plume, which marks the first time such a water emission has been seen over such an expansive distance. 

‘When I was looking at the data, at first, I was thinking I had to be wrong,’ said team member Geronimo Villanueva at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

‘It was just so shocking to detect a water plume more than 20 times the size of the moon.

‘The water plume extends far beyond its release region at the southern pole.’ 

What’s more, water vapour from the plume is gushing out at a rate of about 79 gallons per second, enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in just a couple of hours. 

In comparison, doing so with a garden hose on Earth would take more than two weeks. 

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope revealed a water vapour plume jetting from the southern pole of Enceladus, extending out more than 20 times the size of the moon itself

As the moon orbits Saturn it continuously spews out water molecules, leaving behind a torus -or ‘donut’ – of water in its wake

Enceladus is one of few locations in our solar system with liquid water, along with Earth and Jupiter’s moon Europa, making it a target of interest for astrobiologists. 

READ MORE: Saturn reclaims its crown for most moons in the solar system

Saturn has been confirmed to have more than 100 moons

Its global reservoir of salty liquid water is sandwiched between its icy outer crust and rocky core. 

Enceladus orbits Saturn at a distance of 148,000 miles, between the orbits of two other moons, Mimas and Tethys.

As it does so, the moon continuously spews out water molecules, leaving behind a torus – or ‘donut’ – of material in its wake. 

‘The orbit of Enceladus around Saturn is relatively quick, just 33 hours,’ said Villanueva, who is lead author of a study describing the findings, which is available to view as a pre-print.  

‘As it whips around Saturn, the moon and its jets are basically spitting off water, leaving a halo, almost like a donut, in its wake. 

‘In the Webb observations, not only was the plume huge, but there was just water absolutely everywhere.’ 

What’s more, the moon is feeding a water supply to the entire Saturnian system, including the planet itself and its other moons. 

By analysing Webb’s data, the team found roughly 30 per cent of the water stays within this torus, while the other 70 per cent escapes to supply the rest of the system. 

Cutaway illustration of the interior of Saturn’s moon Enceladus showing a global liquid water ocean between its rocky core and icy crust. Thickness of layers shown here is not to scale

READ MORE: Methane detected in Enceladus’ water plumes 

Artist’s impression of the Cassini spacecraft flying through plumes erupting from the south pole of Saturn’s moon Enceladus

At this point it’s still uncertain whether or not the moon’s liquid ocean is home to life, although researchers have said the moon ‘meets the criteria’ for doing so. 

Experts revealed last December that the ocean contains phosphorus, a vital building block of life that’s used to construct DNA and RNA. 

‘We knew that Enceladus had most of the elements that are essential for life as we know it – carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur,’ Morgan Cable, an astrobiologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, told Science News. 

‘Now that [phosphorus] has been confirmed … Enceladus now appears to meet all of the criteria for a habitable ocean.’ 

Researchers also know that the moon’s ocean spews out methane gas – an organic molecule typically produced or used by microbial life.

The presence of methane in these plumes has led scientists to hypothesise that microbes may be living, or have lived, underneath Enceladus’ shell.

Enceladus was first surveyed by NASA’s Voyager 1 in 1980, which allowed scientists to marvel its reflective icy shell, but was otherwise not seen as very exciting. 

Cassini is depicted here in a NASA illustration. Cassini launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida in October 1997

Near Enceladus’ south pole, the ocean underneath the icy shell spews methane gas – an organic molecule typically produced or used by microbial life (artist’s impression)

However, the moon attracted greater attention in 2014 thanks to data from the now retired Cassini space probe. 

At the time, the plucky spacecraft discovered evidence of its large subsurface ocean and sampled water from geyser-like eruptions that occur through fissures in the ice at its south pole. 

Cassini spent over a decade exploring Saturn and its known moons, and not only imaged the plumes of Enceladus for the first time but flew directly through them.

At the end of its mission in September 2017, the spacecraft was de-orbited so it would burn up in Saturn’s upper atmosphere. 


Cassini launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida in 1997, then spent seven years in transit followed by 13 years orbiting Saturn.

An artist’s impression of the Cassini spacecraft studying Saturn 

In 2000 it spent six months studying Jupiter before reaching Saturn in 2004.

In that time, it discovered six more moons around Saturn, three-dimensional structures towering above Saturn’s rings, and a giant storm that raged across the planet for nearly a year.

On 13 December 2004 it made its first flyby of Saturn’s moons Titan and Dione.

On 24 December it released the European Space Agency-built Huygens probe on Saturn’s moon Titan to study its atmosphere and surface composition.

There it discovered eerie hydrocarbon lakes made from ethane and methane.

In 2008, Cassini completed its primary mission to explore the Saturn system and began its mission extension (the Cassini Equinox Mission).

In 2010 it began its second mission (Cassini Solstice Mission) which lasted until it exploded in Saturn’s atmosphere.

In December 2011, Cassini obtained the highest resolution images of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

In December of the following year it tracked the transit of Venus to test the feasibility of observing planets outside our solar system.

In March 2013 Cassini made the last flyby of Saturn’s moon Rhea and measured its internal structure and gravitational pull.

Cassini didn’t just study Saturn – it also captured incredible views of its many moons. In the image above, Saturn’s moon Enceladus can be seen drifting before the rings and the tiny moon Pandora. It was captured on Nov. 1, 2009, with the entire scene is backlit by the Sun

In July of that year Cassini captured a black-lit Saturn to examine the rings in fine detail and also captured an image of Earth.

In April of this year it completed its closest flyby of Titan and started its Grande Finale orbit which finished on September 15.

‘The mission has changed the way we think of where life may have developed beyond our Earth,’ said Andrew Coates, head of the Planetary Science Group at Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College London.

‘As well as Mars, outer planet moons like Enceladus, Europa and even Titan are now top contenders for life elsewhere,’ he added. ‘We’ve completely rewritten the textbooks about Saturn.’

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