The James Webb Space Telescope has turned from deep earth toward our home Solar System, capturing an image of luminous Neptune and its delicate, dusty rings in detail not seen in years, NASA said Wednesday.
The last time astronomers had such a clear view of the planet farthest from the sun was when NASA’s Voyager 2 became the first and only space probe to fly past the ice giant for a few hour in 1989.
Now Webb’s unprecedented infrared imaging capabilities have provided new insights into Neptune’s atmosphere, said Mark McCaughrean, senior adviser for science and exploration at the European Space Agency.
The telescope “takes away all that glare and background” so that “the atmospheric composition of the planet can begin to be explored”, McCaughrean, who has worked on the Webb project for more than 20 years, told AFP.
Neptune appears deep blue in previous images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope due to methane in its atmosphere. However, the near-infrared wavelengths captured by Webb’s NIRCam primary imager show the planet as grayish white, with icy clouds streaking the surface.
“The rings are more reflective in the infrared,” McCaughrean said, “so they’re much easier to see.”
The image also shows an “interesting brightness” near the tip of Neptune, NASA said in a statement. Because the planet is tilted from Earth and takes 164 years to orbit the Sun, astronomers still don’t have a good view of its north pole.
Webb also saw seven of Neptune’s 14 known moons.
Passing Neptune in a zoomed-out image appears to be a very bright spike star, but is actually Triton’s strange giant moon, Neptune, with Webb’s famous diffraction spikes.
Triton, which is larger than the dwarf planet Pluto, appears brighter than Neptune because it is covered in ice, which reflects light. Meanwhile, Neptune “absorbs most of the light that falls on it,” McCaughrean said.
Because Triton orbits the wrong way around Neptune, it is believed to be a nearby Kuiper belt object caught in the planet’s orbit.
“It’s really cool so go and look at it,” McCaughrean said.
As astronomers scoured the universe looking for other planets like our own, they discovered that ice giants like Neptune and Uranus are the most common in the Milky Way.
“By being able to look at these in detail, we can factor in our observations of other ice giants,” McCaughrean said.
Operating since July, Webb is the most powerful space telescope ever built, and has already released a lot of unprecedented data. Scientists are hopeful that it will herald a new era of discovery.
Research based on Webb’s observations of both Neptune and Triton is expected in the next year.
“The kind of astronomy we’re seeing now was unimaginable five years ago,” McCaughrean said.
“Of course, we knew it would do this, we built it to do this, the machine is exactly what we designed,” he said. “But to suddenly start seeing things in these longer wavelengths, which was impossible before … it’s really impressive.”
Earlier this month, the world’s newest and largest space telescope captured an incredibly detailed image of thousands of young, never-before-seen stars in a region known as
This summer, the telescope took aand also available on the clear look of the until now.
Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, which observes light mostly in the visible part of the spectrum, Webb is optimized to study longer wavelength infrared radiation, allowing it to capture light from the beginning of the expanding universe. the space itself. for the past 13.8 billion years.
Last month, the European Space Agency released a new photograph taken of the heart of Messier 74, located 32 million light-years away in the constellation Pisces, to combine the Hubble telescope with the Webb telescope.
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