spaceSpace and Physics

Astronaut Urine Could Explain How The Plumes Of Enceladus Work


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

Illustration of Cassini flying through the plumes. NASA/JPL-Caltech

So this one’s, uh, a bit odd. In a bid to study how the plumes of Saturn’s moon Enceladus work, researchers may want to study how we dump astronaut urine in space.

The plumes of Enceladus were first spotted by Cassini back in 2005, and we think they may originate from an ocean beneath the moon’s icy surface. It’s possible, with hydrothermal activity on its floor, that this ocean could host life.


Breaking through cracks in the ice, the plumes consist of liquid from this ocean, which are then fired into space. Cassini was able to not only see these jets of liquid, but fly through them as well. Pretty neat. But we don’t quite know how they work, such as how they spread out in space.

A report in New Scientist, however, suggests an answer. They quote Ralph Lorenz from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, who says that how we vent astronaut pee and waste water from fuel cells into space may be a similar process.

Speaking at the American Astronomical Society’s meeting of the Division of Planetary Sciences in Utah yesterday, he said that water dumped into space freezes quickly. How this freezing happens, and how it affects the ejected liquid, could be a similar process to Enceladus.

“These observations don’t tell us directly what’s happening on Enceladus, but they provide a sort of anchor for our interpretations of what we’re seeing on Enceladus and our designs for a new mission to go there,” said Lorenz.


Even more interestingly, previous observations of the Space Shuttle showed that some of this frozen waste impacted its tiles, making noticeable dents. If we sent a spacecraft through the plumes of Enceladus, it might be possible to directly sample microbes in this way.

Studying space toilets could also tell us how big ice particles in the plumes of Enceladus might grow. Science News notes that in 1984, a 60-centimeter [24-inch] icicle grew from a fuel cell vent of the Space Shuttle discovery. It's possible that as the water freezes as it comes up from Enceladus, it could be storing biosignatures.

If we ever do find life on this moon of Saturn, may we'll have an unlikely source to thank.


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