Home North pole ice James Webb Space Telescope captures image of Neptune’s rings and moons

James Webb Space Telescope captures image of Neptune’s rings and moons

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The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has captured its first image of the solar system’s icy giant Neptune, revealing the planet in a whole new light.

The image gives astronomers their best insight Neptuneicy rings for 32 years, since the Traveler 2 spacecraft flew over the planet while exiting the solar system. “It’s been three decades since we’ve seen these faint, dusty bands, and this is the first time we’ve seen them in the infrared,” said Heidi Hammel, planetary scientist at the Association of Universities for Research. in astronomy (AURA). said in a statement (opens in a new tab).

Excitingly, in addition to the previously known bright and narrow Neptunian rings, the new James Webb Space Telescope The image also shows fainter rings of dust around Neptune that even Voyager 2’s close, personal visit to the planet in 1989 could not reveal – rings that scientists have never seen before.

Related: First images of Mars from the James Webb Space Telescope reveal the secrets of the atmosphere

Webb’s near-infrared camera (NIRCam) image of Neptune, taken on July 12, 2022, brings the planet’s rings into focus for the first time in more than three decades. (Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI)

What seems to be missing in the JWST Neptune image is the characteristic blue color who became associated with the ice giant from photos taken by the The Hubble Space Telescope.

This blue color, which is caused by methane in the planet’s atmosphere, is absent because the JWST sees Neptune in the near infrared. Because the methane in the planet’s icy clouds strongly absorbs light at these wavelengths, the planet appears quite dark at JWST in regions not covered by bright clouds at high altitudes.

Another prominent feature of the JWST image is a series of bright spots in Neptune’s southern hemisphere. These depict clouds of ice high in the icy giant’s atmosphere reflecting sunlight before the methane in the clouds absorbs it. The JWST image also highlights a continuous band of high latitude clouds surrounding a previously known vortex located at Neptune’s south pole.

A thin, faint line of brightness can also be spotted around the planet’s equator, which may indicate the global circulation of Neptune’s atmosphere driving winds and storms through the icy giant.

The image also shows something intriguing at Neptune’s north pole. At this point in Neptune’s 164 Earth-year-long orbit around the Sun, its north pole is just out of sight from the JWST’s position nearly 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth. Yet the most powerful space telescope ever created still managed to spot an intriguing luminosity in Neptune’s north pole region.

The JWST images also give scientists a look at seven of Neptune’s moons. In particular, just above the icy giant in the enlarged version of its view of Neptune is a bright point of light that represents the moon Triton. This Neptunian moon is covered in a frozen layer of condensed nitrogen and appears so bright, dwarfing the methane-darkened Neptune, because it reflects about 70% of the sunlight that falls on it.

In this version of Neptune’s near-infrared camera (NIRCam) image of Webb, the planet’s visible moons are labeled. Neptune has 14 known satellites, and seven of them are visible in this image. (Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI)

At a distance from the sun that is 30 times that which separates the Earth from our star, Neptune can seem far away. But, it’s a cosmic stone’s throw from the galaxies and stars billions of light-years away that the JWST was designed to observe.

The image of Neptune further demonstrates that even though the JWST was created to visualize extremely distant cosmic objects, looking back in time at the universe as it existed billions of years ago, it still provides important and revolutionary results from inside the solar system.

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