NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope captures clearest image of Neptune’s rings in 33 years

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope captures clearest image of Neptune’s rings in 33 years

In this Webb Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) image, hundreds of background galaxies, varying in size and shape, are visible alongside the Neptune system.

The James Webb Space Telescope’s Near-Infrared Camera captures hundreds of background galaxies along the Neptune system.NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

New images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, released Wednesday, show the clearest views of Neptune and its hard-to-see rings in years.

It is the best view of the planet’s dusty rings since the Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by Neptune in 1989, on its way out of the solar system, according to Heidi Hammel, an interdisciplinary scientist who works on the Webb telescope.

“This is the first time we’ve seen it in the infrared,” Hammel said.

On the left, is a picture of Neptune's rings taken by Voyager 2 in 1989. On the right, an infrared picture of Neptune's rings taken by Webb.

Neptune’s rings taken by Voyager 2 in 1989. Neptune’s rings taken in infrared by the James Webb Space Telescope, right.NASA/JPL/ESA/STScI

The new pictures show small dusty rings around the planet that even the Voyager 2 flyby from 1989 could not capture.

On the left is a composite of two images of Neptune’s rings taken by Voyager 2. The planet’s body has been obscured so the probe could gather more light from the icy giant’s faint rings.

“Wow, I’m in awe of the rings!” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, write about Webb’s Neptune images on Twitter Wednesday.

Webb’s new images show Neptune’s bright methane-ice clouds reflecting sunlight, as well as galaxies shining against an inky black expanse.

Neptune often appears bright blue in images due to the presence of methane in its atmosphere, as in the image below, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, which detects wavelengths of visible light.

In this Hubble image of Neptune, taken in 2021, the planet appears blue due to its methane-rich atmosphere.

In this Hubble image of Neptune, taken in 2021, the planet appears blue due to its methane-rich atmosphere.NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), and MH Wong (University of California, Berkeley) and the OPAL team.

But because Webb picks up infrared light, Neptune doesn’t look blue. Instead it shows up as a ghostly white planet. That’s because methane absorbs reddish and infrared light.

“In fact, the methane gas (in Neptune’s atmosphere) absorbs red and infrared light so strongly that the planet is quite dark at these infrared wavelengths, except when high-altitude clouds are present,” according to a NASA statement .

The planet’s high-altitude methane ice clouds appear as brilliant, bright features since they reflect sunlight before being absorbed by methane, according to NASA.

“More simply, a thin bright line around the planet’s equator could be a visual signature of global atmospheric circulation that powers Neptune’s winds and storms,” ​​NASA said.

Webb's Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) image of Neptune and its rings.  Neptune has 14 known satellites, seven of which are visible in this image.

The James Webb Space Telescope’s Near-Infrared Camera image of Neptune and its rings. Neptune has 14 known satellites, seven of which can be seen in this image.NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

In the image above, seven of Neptune’s 14 known moons can be seen, including Galatea, Naiad, Thalassa, Despina, Larissa, and Proteus. The bright blue star-like feature is Neptune’s largest moon, Triton, which outshines Neptune because it reflects more sunlight than the planet and its atmosphere.

Often described as the successor to Hubble, Webb launched on December 25, 2021, after more than twenty years of development. Since then, the $10 billion telescope has traveled more than 1 million miles from Earth and is now located in a stable gravitational orbit, collecting infrared light. By collecting infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye, Webb is able to cut through cosmic dust and see far into the past, to the first 400 million years after the Big Bang.

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