New images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, released Wednesday, show the clearest views of Neptune and its hard-to-see rings in decades.
It’s the best view of the planet’s dust rings since the Voyager 2 spacecraft flew past Neptune in 1989 as it left the solar system, according to Heidi Hammel, an interdisciplinary scientist working on the Webb telescope.
“This is the first time we’ve seen them in the infrared,” Hammel said.
The new snapshots show faint rings of dust around the planet that not even Voyager 2’s flyby in 1989 could capture.
At left is a composite of two Voyager 2 images of Neptune’s rings. The planet’s body is covered so the spacecraft can capture more light from the icy giant’s faint rings.
“Wow, I’m in awe of those rings!” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, wrote about Webb’s Neptune images on Twitter Wednesday.
Webb’s new images show Neptune’s bright methane ice clouds reflecting sunlight, as well as a handful of galaxies 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 is based on wavelengths of visible light.
But because Webb captures infrared light, Neptune doesn’t appear blue. Instead, it appears as a ghostly white planet. That’s because methane absorbs reddish and infrared light.
“In fact, methane gas (in Neptune’s atmosphere) absorbs red and infrared light so strongly that the planet is quite dark at these near-infrared wavelengths, except where there are high-altitude clouds,” according to a statement. from NASA.
The planet’s high-altitude methane ice clouds appear as bright features as they reflect sunlight before it is absorbed by the methane, according to NASA.
“More subtly, a thin line of brightness encircling the planet’s equator could be a visual signature of the global atmospheric circulation that drives Neptune’s winds and storms,” NASA added.
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 actually Neptune’s largest moon, Triton, which dwarfs 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 two decades of development. Since then, the $10 billion telescope has traveled more than 1 million miles from Earth and is now parked in a gravitationally stable orbit, collecting infrared light. By gathering infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye, Webb can cut through cosmic dust and see into the distant past, back to the first 400 million years after the Big Bang.
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