Neptune’s elusive rings pictured by the James Webb Space Telescope


THIS PICTURE: Webb???s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) image of Neptune, taken on 12 July 2022, brings the planet???s rings into full focus for the first time in more than three decades. The most prominent features of Neptune???s atmosphere in this image are a series of bright patches in the planet???s southern hemisphere that represent high-altitude methane-ice clouds. More subtly, a thin line of brightness circling the planet???s equator could be a visual signature of global atmospheric circulation that powers Neptune???s winds and storms. Additionally, for the first time, Webb has teased out a continuous band of high-latitude clouds surrounding a previously-known vortex at Neptune???s southern pole. --- SEE SWNS STORY SWNSneptune. --- The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope is showing off its capabilities closer to home with its first image of Neptune, released 21 September. Not only has Webb captured the clearest view of this peculiar planet???s rings in more than 30 years, but its cameras are also revealing the ice giant in a whole new light. Most striking about Webb???s new image is the crisp view of the planet???s dynamic rings ??? some of which haven???t been seen at all, let alone with this clarity, since the Voyager 2 flyby in 1989. In addition to several bright narrow rings, the Webb images clearly show Neptune???s fainter dust bands. Webb???s extremely stable and precise image quality also permits these very faint rings to be detected so close to Neptune.

This image from James Webb brings Neptune’s rings into full focus for the first time in more than three decades (Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI/SWNS)

The James Webb Space Telescope isn’t just being used to capture stunning images of deep space.

It’s also been showing off its capabilities closer to home – with its first image of Neptune.

Not only has Webb captured the clearest view of the planet’s rings in more than 30 years, but scientists say its cameras are revealing the ice giant in a whole new light.

Most striking about Webb’s new image is the crisp view of the planet’s dynamic rings – some of which haven’t been seen at all, let alone with this clarity, since the Voyager 2 flyby in 1989.

In addition to several bright narrow rings, the Webb images clearly show Neptune’s fainter dust bands.

Webb’s extremely stable and precise image quality also permits these very faint rings to be detected so close to Neptune.

Webb also captured seven of Neptune’s 14 known moons. Dominating the Webb portrait of Neptune is a very bright point of light sporting the signature diffraction spikes seen in many of Webb’s images; it’s not a star, but Neptune’s most unusual moon, Triton.

THIS PICTURE: In this version of Webb???s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) image of Neptune, the planet???s visible moons are labeled. Neptune has 14 known satellites, and seven of them are visible in this image. Triton, the bright spot of light in the upper left of this image, far outshines Neptune because the planet???s atmosphere is darkened by methane absorption wavelengths captured by Webb. Triton reflects an average of 70 percent of the sunlight that hits it. Triton, which orbits Neptune in a backward orbit, is suspected to have originally been a Kuiper belt object that was gravitationally captured by Neptune. --- SEE SWNS STORY SWNSneptune. --- The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope is showing off its capabilities closer to home with its first image of Neptune, released 21 September. Not only has Webb captured the clearest view of this peculiar planet???s rings in more than 30 years, but its cameras are also revealing the ice giant in a whole new light. Most striking about Webb???s new image is the crisp view of the planet???s dynamic rings ??? some of which haven???t been seen at all, let alone with this clarity, since the Voyager 2 flyby in 1989. In addition to several bright narrow rings, the Webb images clearly show Neptune???s fainter dust bands. Webb???s extremely stable and precise image quality also permits these very faint rings to be detected so close to Neptune.

Neptune’s moons are also visible in the image (Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI/SWNS)

The telescope, an international collaboration with ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency), provides a unique perspective with its infrared sensitivity on our neighbouring planets.

An ESA Webb statement explains: ‘Neptune has fascinated and perplexed researchers since its discovery in 1846. Located 30 times farther from the Sun than Earth, Neptune orbits in one of the dimmest areas of our Solar System. At that extreme distance, the Sun is so small and faint that high noon on Neptune is similar to a dim twilight on Earth.

THIS PICTURE: In this image by Webb???s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), a smattering of hundreds of background galaxies, varying in size and shape, appear alongside the Neptune system. Neptune, when compared to Earth, is a big planet. If Earth were the size of a nickel, Neptune would be as big as a basketball. In most portraits, the outer planets of our solar system reflect this otherworldly size. However, Neptune appears relatively small in a wide field of the vast universe. Towards the bottom left of this image, a barred spiral galaxy comes into focus. Scientists say this particular galaxy, previously unexplored in detail, is about 1,200 million light years away. These types of galaxies at this relative difference are typically dominated by young stars that appear blueish in these wavelengths. --- SEE SWNS STORY SWNSneptune. --- The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope is showing off its capabilities closer to home with its first image of Neptune, released 21 September. Not only has Webb captured the clearest view of this peculiar planet???s rings in more than 30 years, but its cameras are also revealing the ice giant in a whole new light. Most striking about Webb???s new image is the crisp view of the planet???s dynamic rings ??? some of which haven???t been seen at all, let alone with this clarity, since the Voyager 2 flyby in 1989. In addition to several bright narrow rings, the Webb images clearly show Neptune???s fainter dust bands. Webb???s extremely stable and precise image quality also permits these very faint rings to be detected so close to Neptune.

A smattering of hundreds of background galaxies, varying in size and shape, appear alongside the Neptune system. (Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI/SWNS)

‘This planet is characterised as an ice giant due to the chemical make-up of its interior. Compared to the gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, Neptune is much richer in elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. This is readily apparent in Neptune’s signature blue appearance in NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope images at visible wavelengths, caused by small amounts of gaseous methane.

‘Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) captures objects in the near-infrared range from 0.6 to 5 microns, so Neptune does not appear blue to Webb. In fact, the methane gas is so strongly absorbing that the planet is quite dark at Webb wavelengths except where high-altitude clouds are present.

‘Such methane-ice clouds are prominent as bright streaks and spots, which reflect sunlight before it is absorbed by methane gas. Images from other observatories have recorded these rapidly-evolving cloud features over the years.

The James Webb Space Telescope was originally scheduled to be launched on December 24 but was delayed due to adverse weather conditions at Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana.

The James Webb Space Telescope was launched on Christmas Day, 2021 (Credits: EPA)

‘More subtly, a thin line of brightness circling the planet’s equator could be a visual signature of global atmospheric circulation that powers Neptune’s winds and storms. The atmosphere descends and warms at the equator, and thus glows at infrared wavelengths more than the surrounding, cooler gases.

‘Neptune’s 164-year orbit means its northern pole, at the top of this image, is just out of view for astronomers, but the Webb images hint at an intriguing brightness in that area. A previously-known vortex at the southern pole is evident in Webb’s view, but for the first time Webb has revealed a continuous band of clouds surrounding it.’


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