The glowing rings orbiting Neptune and moons orbiting the distant planet were captured by Nasa’s James Webb Space Telescope.
Scientists describe the stunning images of the rings around the solar system’s outermost planet as the clearest in 30 years.
Nasa released the images, which showed several bright, thin rings and Neptune’s faint bands of dust, never before captured with an infrared camera.
These infrared waves can penetrate dense gas and dust, revealing objects in the universe that otherwise cannot be seen in visible light even by powerful telescopes.
The Webb telescope shows seven of Neptune’s 14 known moons, with large moon Triton emitting near-blinding radiance.
The dramatic photos illuminate a dark region of the outer solar system.
Such a clear view has not been observed since Nasa Voyager 2, the first spacecraft to observe Neptune during a flyby in 1989.
“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 planetary astronomer working at the Webb telescope.
The scientist, who has studied the solar system’s outer planets, rings and moons, tweeted that she was moved to tears when she first saw the images.
Triton’s blinding rays overshadow the light of Neptune’s six other visible moons – Galatea, Naiad, Thalassa, Despina, Proteus and Larissa.
Neptune, discovered in 1846, is called an ice planet and is 30 times farther from the sun than Earth.
Both Uranus and Neptune are known as ice giants because their interiors differ in composition from the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn, which are richer in hydrogen and helium.
Neptune and Uranus are among the least studied, and scientists will use the Webb to study the chemistry, weather, and circulation patterns.
Scientists said a thin line of brightness circling the planet’s equator could be a visual representation of the global atmospheric circulation driving Neptune’s winds and storms.
The atmosphere is sinking, warming at the equator and glowing more brightly in the infrared than the surrounding, cooler gases.
Triton outshines Neptune in the image because it is covered in a frozen sheen of condensed nitrogen and reflects an average of 70 percent of the sunlight that strikes it.
The precision quality of the $10 billion Webb telescope emphasizes the detail and clarity of the rings.
The world’s most powerful telescope operates about 1.6 million kilometers from Earth.
Launched on Christmas Day last year, the telescope aims to study the origins of the universe, explore distant worlds around the stars and search for life by examining the chemical composition of the planets’ atmospheres.
Nasa said the Webb was in “good health,” but reported a technical problem with one of the instruments that prompted the space agency to pause one of four observation modes.
A mechanism on the observatory’s infrared instrument had technical problems.
The space observatory program is led by NASA in partnership with the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.
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Updated September 22, 2022 at 9:31 am