The James Webb Space Telescope has turned its gaze from the deep universe to our Solar System, capturing an image of a luminous Neptune and its delicate, dusty rings in detail not seen in decades, NASA said Wednesday.
The last time astronomers had such a clear view of the planet furthest from the sun was when NASA’s Voyager 2 became the first and only space probe to fly past the ice giant for just a few hours in 1989.
Now, Webb’s unprecedented infrared imaging capabilities have provided new insight into Neptune’s atmosphere, said Mark McCaughrean, senior adviser for science and exploration at the European Space Agency.
The telescope “removes all the glare and background” so that “we can start to tease out the atmospheric composition” of the planet, McCaughrean, who has worked on the Webb project for more than 20 years, told AFP.
Neptune appears deep blue in earlier images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope due to methane in its atmosphere. However, near-infrared wavelengths captured by Webb’s main NIRCam imager show the planet as a grayish-white, with icy clouds streaking across the surface.
“The rings are more reflective in the infrared,” McCaughrean said, “so they’re much easier to see.”
The image also shows an “intriguing glow” near the top of Neptune, NASA said in a statement. Because the planet is tilted away from Earth and takes 164 years to orbit the Sun, astronomers have yet to get a good look at its north pole.
Webb also saw seven of Neptune’s 14 known moons.
Above Neptune in an enlarged image is what appears to be a very bright, spiky star, but is actually Triton, Neptune’s strange and enormous moon surrounded by 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 Neptune backwards, it is believed that it was once a nearby Kuiper belt object that was captured in the planet’s orbit.
“So it’s great to go and take a look,” McCaughrean said.
As astronomers scour the universe for other planets like our own, they’ve found that ice giants like Neptune and Uranus are the most common in the Milky Way.
“By being able to observe these in great detail, we can introduce our observations of other ice giants,” McCaughrean said.
Up and running since July, Webb is the most powerful space telescope ever built and has already unleashed an unprecedented wealth of data. Scientists hope it heralds a new age of discovery.
Research based on Webb’s observations of 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, it’s exactly the machine we designed,” he said. “But suddenly starting to see things at these longer wavelengths that were previously impossible…it’s absolutely extraordinary.”
Earlier this month, the world’s newest and largest space telescope captured an extremely detailed image of thousands of young stars never before seen in a region known as the
This summer, the telescope captured aand also provided the clearest look of the so far.
Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, which primarily observes light in the visible part of the spectrum, Webb is optimized to study longer-wavelength infrared radiation, allowing it to capture dawn light from the universe that has spread across the expansion of space itself. during the last 13.8 billion years.
Last month, the European Space Agency released a new photo capturing the heart of Messier 74, located 32 million light-years away in the constellation Pisces, in a Hubble-Webb telescope view.
James Webb telescope captures new image of Neptune
Owner of Phoenix Suns, Mercury sales teams
Colorado Seeks to Combat Rise in Fentanyl Trafficking