the space telescope james webb NASA demonstrated its incredible observation capabilities once again, with the clearest image of Neptune ever captured.
Cameras from the advanced space observation post reveal the ice giant planet from a whole new perspective, along with its rings and some of its moons. Most striking in Webb’s new image is the sharp view of the planet’s rings.some of which had not been detected since NASA’s Voyager 2 became the first spacecraft to observe Neptune during its flyby in 1989. In addition to several narrow, bright rings, Webb’s image clearly shows Neptune’s fainter dust lanes.
“It’s been three decades since we last saw these faint, dusty rings, and this is the first time we’ve seen them in the infrared,” says Heidi Hammel, a Neptune systems expert and interdisciplinary scientist on the Webb telescope team. Webb’s extremely stable and precise image quality makes it possible to detect these very faint rings that are so close to Neptune. Neptune has fascinated researchers since its discovery in 1846. Located 30 times farther from the Sun than Earth, the planet orbits in the remote and dark region of the outer solar system. At that extreme distance, the Sun is so small and faint that noon on Neptune is similar to a dimly lit twilight on Earth.
This planet is characterized as a ice giant due to the chemical composition of its interior. Compared to the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn, Neptune is much richer in elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. This is readily apparent in Neptune’s characteristic blue appearance in Hubble Space Telescope images at visible wavelengths, caused by small amounts of gaseous methane.
Webb’s Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) generates images of objects in the near infrared range between 0.6 and 5 microns, so Neptune does not appear blue through Webb’s instruments. In fact, methane gas absorbs red and infrared light so strongly that the planet is quite dark at these infrared wavelengths close except where there are high-altitude clouds. Such methane ice clouds stand out as bright streaks and spots, reflecting sunlight before it is absorbed by methane gas. Images from other observatories, including the Hubble Space Telescope and the WM Keck Observatory, have recorded these rapidly evolving cloud features over the years.
more subtly, a thin line of brightness encircling the planet’s equator could be a visual cue for global atmospheric circulation that feeds the winds and storms of Neptune. The atmosphere sinks and heats up at the equator, and therefore shines brighter in infrared wavelengths than the cooler surrounding gases. Neptune’s 164-year orbit means that its north pole, at the top of this image, it’s out of sight of astronomers, but Webb’s images suggest an intriguing glow in that area. A previously known vortex at the south pole is evident in Webb’s view, but for the first time Webb has revealed a continuous band of high-latitude clouds surrounding it.
Webb also captured seven of Neptune’s 14 known moons.. A very bright point of light stands out in this Webb portrait of Neptune, showing the characteristic diffraction spikes seen in many of Webb’s images, but this is not a star. Rather, this is Neptune’s large and unusual moon, Triton.
Covered in an icy sheen of condensed nitrogen, Triton reflects an average of 70 percent of the sunlight that strikes it.. It outshines Neptune in this image because the planet’s atmosphere is obscured by methane absorption at these near-infrared wavelengths. Triton orbits Neptune in an unusual retrograde orbit, leading astronomers to speculate that this moon was originally a Kuiper Belt Object that was gravitationally captured by Neptune. Additional studies with Webb of both Triton and Neptune are scheduled for next year.
The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s premier space science observatory. Webb will solve the mysteries of our solar system, see beyond distant worlds around other stars, and explore the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners: the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).