weic2214 — Photo Release
New Webb Image Captures Clearest View of Neptune’s Rings in Decades
21 September 2022
The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope is showing off its capabilities closer to home with its first image of Neptune. 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 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 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.
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.
Webb also captured seven of Neptune’s 14 known moons. Dominating this 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.
Covered in a frozen sheen of condensed nitrogen, Triton reflects an average of 70 percent of the sunlight that hits it. It far outshines Neptune because the planet’s atmosphere is darkened by methane absorption at Webb’s wavelengths. Triton orbits Neptune in a bizarre backward (retrograde) orbit, leading astronomers to speculate that this moon was actually a Kuiper Belt object that was gravitationally captured by Neptune. Additional Webb studies of both Triton and Neptune are planned in the coming year.
Webb is the largest, most powerful telescope ever launched into space. Under an international collaboration agreement, ESA provided the telescope’s launch service, using the Ariane 5 launch vehicle. Working with partners, ESA was responsible for the development and qualification of Ariane 5 adaptations for the Webb mission and for the procurement of the launch service by Arianespace. ESA also provided the workhorse spectrograph NIRSpec and 50% of the mid-infrared instrument MIRI, which was designed and built by a consortium of nationally funded European Institutes (The MIRI European Consortium) in partnership with JPL and the University of Arizona.
Webb is an international partnership between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI
- Collection of Webb’s First Images
- ESA Webb Seeing Farther Interactive Brochure
- Release on STScI website
- Release on ESA website
- ESA's New and Future Exoplanet Missions
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