The icy giant planet Neptune has been imaged in a completely new way for the first time by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Since the Voyager 2 spacecraft passed by Neptune as it exited the solar system 32 years ago, this image has given astronomers the best images of the planet's frozen rings.
“The faint, dusty bands have not been detected for three decades, and this is the first time we see them in the infrared,” explains planetary scientist Heidi Hammel of the Association of Universities for Astronomy Research (AURA).
Excitingly, the new James Webb Space Telescope image shows, in addition to the bright, narrow Neptune rings previously known, some faint dust rings around Neptune that scientists have never seen before, which even Voyager 2's close visit to the planet in 1989 failed to reveal. also reveals.
The distinctive blue color associated with the ice giant from images obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope appears to be absent from the JWST Neptune photo.
By observing Neptune in near-infrared light, JWST removes the characteristic blue hue from methane in the planet's atmosphere. JWST sees the planet as relatively black in areas not covered by bright, high-altitude clouds, as methane in the planet's frozen clouds largely absorbs light in these wavelengths.
A series of bright spots in Neptune's southern hemisphere is another prominent object in the JWST photo. These are high-altitude ice clouds that reflect sunlight before the methane in the clouds is absorbed in the ice giant's atmosphere. A continuous belt of high latitude clouds surrounding a previously identified vortex at Neptune's south pole is likewise highlighted in the JWST image.
In addition, a small faint line of luminosity can be seen surrounding the planet's equator. This could be an indication of how Neptune's atmosphere circulates globally, causing winds and storms to blow across the ice giant.
The image also reveals an unusual object at Neptune's north pole. Viewed from JWST's position about one million miles (1,5 million kilometers) from Earth, Neptune's north pole is currently just out of view in its 164 Earth-year-long orbit around the Sun. Even so, the region around Neptune's north pole was imaged with an intriguing brightness, as seen by the most powerful satellite telescope ever built.
All seven of Neptune's moons can be seen in JWST photos, which are useful to scientists. A particularly bright spot of light symbolizing the moon Triton can be seen just above the ice giant in a zoomed-in version of the Neptune perspective. This moon of Neptune is covered by a blanket of frozen condensed nitrogen that reflects about 70% of the sunlight hitting it and makes it look dazzling, outshining the methane-dark Neptune.
The planet's visible moons are identified in this interpretation of Webb's Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) image of Neptune. Seven of the 14 moons known to orbit Neptune are seen in this image.
Neptune may seem distant because it is 30 times further from the Sun than Earth is from our star. However, this value is small compared to the galaxies and stars billions of light-years away that JWST is designed to study.
The Neptune image also shows that although JWST was designed to study extremely distant cosmic objects and look back in time to the universe as it existed billions of years ago, it still produces important and groundbreaking findings from within the solar system.