NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has released its first image of Neptune and it is, without a doubt, spectacular. It is the clearest view of this distant planet in more than 30 years.
Neptune and its delicate rings
What’s most remarkable about the image is being able to see so clearly the planet’s rings, some of which have not been detected since 1989. The telescope even managed to capture some of Neptune’s fainter dust lanes. It’s not just the spectacular rings that have been revealed, but details of the planet itself.
“It’s been three decades since we last saw these faint, dusty rings, and this is the first time we’ve seen them in the infrared ,” explained Heidi Hammel, an expert on the Neptune system and an interdisciplinary scientist at Webb. press.
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.
Thanks to Webb’s infrared capabilities, which “remove all glare and background” so that ” we can begin to tease out the atmospheric composition ” of the planet, we have a new view of Neptune’s atmosphere.
Why don’t we see Neptune in blue in this image?
Webb’s NIRCam instrument observes in the near-infrared range from 0.6 to 5 microns, so Neptune does not appear blue to Webb, as it can pass through cosmic gas and dust and see much farther. In fact, methane gas 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.
Neptune’s atmosphere is darkened by the absorption of methane at these near-infrared wavelengths. Thanks to NIRCam, we see the planet in a grayish white color, with icy clouds that cross the surface. The rings are more reflective in the infrared, so they are much easier to see, as seen in Webb’s spectacular snapshot.
“Neptune’s 164-year orbit means its north pole, at the top of this image, is out of sight of astronomers, but the Webb images hint at an intriguing glow in that area. A previously known vortex is evident.” at the south pole, but for the first time Webb has revealed a continuous band of clouds surrounding it,” the European Space Agency (ESA) explained in a statement.
The icy planet is 30 times farther from the Sun than Earth, so it has never been particularly easy to take sharp snapshots of the planet.
“This planet is characterized as an ice giant due to the chemical composition of its interior. Compared to the gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, Neptune is much richer in elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. This is evident in Neptune’s characteristic blue appearance in NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope Images at visible wavelengths, caused by small amounts of gaseous methane ,” ESA said.
Neptune was first discovered in 1846 and has fascinated astronomers ever since. The planet is characterized as an ice giant due to the chemical composition of its interior. However, Neptune is much richer in elements heavier than hydrogen and helium than its gas giant neighbors Jupiter and Saturn.
The latest images from JWST remind us that there are many more discoveries waiting to be revealed, and we have no doubt that the James Webb Telescope will help us solve many cosmic puzzles in the future.
Referencia: New Webb Image Captures Clearest View of Neptune’s Rings in Decades. Jessica Merzdorf . Press Release NASA / ESA / CSA / STScI.