New images released Wednesday from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope show Neptune and the planet’s elusive rings in a new light.
“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,” said Heidi Hammel, a Neptune expert and interdisciplinary scientist on the Webb project. in a news publication.
In addition to several clear, narrow rings, Neptune’s Webb images show fainter dust bands. Some of the rings have not been observed since NASA’s Voyager 2 received the first photographic evidence of the existence of Neptune’s rings during their flyby in 1989, CNN reported.
Dark, cold, and whipped by supersonic winds, Neptune is the most distant planet in our solar system. The planet and its neighbor Uranus are known as “ice giants” because their interiors are made up of heavier elements than the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn, which are richer in hydrogen and helium.
Neptune appears white in the new images, as opposed to the typically blue appearance it has in views taken in visible light wavelengths. This is because gaseous methane, part of the planet’s chemical composition, does not appear blue to Webb’s near-infrared (NIRCam) camera.
Also visible in the images are methane ice plumes – bright streaks and dots that reflect sunlight before it is absorbed by the methane gas. It’s also possible to see a bright, thin line circling the planet’s equator, which the press release says “could be a visual signature of the global atmospheric circulation driving Neptune’s winds and storms.”
Webb has also captured seven of Neptune’s 14 known moons, including its largest moon Triton, which orbits the planet in an unusual backwards orbit. Astronomers think Triton may have been an object in the Kuiper Belt – a region of icy objects at the edge of the solar system – that fell into Neptune’s gravitational grip. Scientists plan to use Webb to continue studying Triton and Neptune in the years to come.
Neptune is 30 times farther from the Sun than Earth and moves through its solar orbit in the remote, dark region of the outer Solar System. At that distance, the Sun is so small and faint that noon on Neptune resembles a dim twilight on Earth, the press release said.
Webb is a 10+ year mission being conducted by NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.
Compared to other telescopes, the space observatory’s massive mirror can see fainter galaxies that are farther away and has the potential to improve scientists’ understanding of the origins of the universe. However, it also uses its stable and precise image quality to illuminate our own solar system with images of Mars, Jupiter and now Neptune.
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