NASA releases JWST photo of Neptune’s rings

NASA releases JWST photo of Neptune’s rings

The James Webb Space Telescope’s first images of Neptune, the mysterious ice giant orbiting in the far reaches of the outer solar system, were so spectacular that even astronomers could hardly contain their emotions.

The observatory’s observations, released Wednesday, include a rare appearance of Neptune’s rings, providing some of the sharpest images of these ghostly features seen in more than 30 years, according to NASA.

“Not gonna lie. I cringed when I saw THE FIRST IMAGE OF JWST NEPTUNE!” Heidi Hammel, an interdisciplinary scientist with the Webb telescope and a planetary scientist whose research focuses on Neptune and Uranus, tweeted on Wednesday.

The images are the first taken of Neptune’s rings at infrared wavelengths, which can pass through the dust and gas that might otherwise obscure celestial targets. The Webb telescope’s infrared instruments allow it to see planets, stars and galaxies beyond the range of human vision and other telescopes that see primarily in visible light.

“Wow, I’m in awe of the rings!” tweeted Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

In addition to its bright rings, the Webb observatory spied on Neptune’s smaller dust bands and seven of Earth’s 14 known moons.

The last time Neptune’s rings were seen in detail was during a 1989 flyby by NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft as it passed through the solar system and into interstellar space. That historic flight gave humanity its first close-up view of the solar system’s eighth planet.

Now, scientists are getting an even clearer picture of Neptune.

“It’s been decades since we last saw these thin, dusty rings, and this is the first time we’ve seen them in the infrared,” Hammel said in a statement.

Around Neptune’s equator, a thin bright line may indicate where the atmosphere is heating, and therefore glowing at infrared wavelengths, compared to the surrounding gas, which is cooler, according to NASA. These features may be visual signatures of the planet’s atmospheric circulation and may be what drives Neptune’s winds and storms, the agency said.

The Webb observatory picked up a previously known vortex at Neptune’s south pole and saw a continuous band of clouds around it, NASA officials said. There is also a bright area near the planet’s north pole that will require follow-up observations.

Image: James Webb Neptune Space Telescope (NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI)

Image: James Webb Neptune Space Telescope (NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI)

Several of Neptune’s moons are also visible, including Galatea, Naiad, Thalassa, Despina, Larissa and Proteus.

In one image, a bright blue feature that looks like a star is actually Triton’s moon, which shines on Neptune because it is coated in a frozen layer of condensed nitrogen and reflects more sunlight than the planet and its atmosphere.

Neptune was discovered in 1846 and is located 30 times further from the sun than Earth. The planet’s 164-year orbit passes through some of the darkest and most remote regions of the outer solar system.

Neptune is considered an “ice giant” due to its internal chemical composition. Unlike Jupiter and Saturn, the gas giants of the outer solar system, Neptune is richer in elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, according to NASA.

The James Webb Space Telescope is a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. The tennis court observatory is designed to study the early days after the Big Bang and help astronomers piece together how modern life came to be.

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