October 6, 2022

The James Webb Space Telescope has turned its gaze from deep space to our home solar system, capturing an image of glowing Neptune and its delicate, dusty rings in detail not seen for decades, NASA said Wednesday.

The last time astronomers had such a clear view of the farthest planet from the Sun was when NASA’s Voyager 2 became the first and only spacecraft to fly past the ice giant for just a few hours in 1989.

Now Webb’s unprecedented infrared imaging capabilities have provided new insights into Neptune’s atmosphere, said Mark McCaughrean, senior science and research adviser at the European Space Agency.

The telescope “removes all that glare and background” so “we can start to figure out the atmospheric composition” of the planet, McCaughrean, who has worked on the Webb project for more than 20 years, told AFP.

Neptune appears dark blue in previous images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope because of the methane in its atmosphere. However, near-infrared wavelengths captured by Webb’s primary imager NIRCam show the planet as grayish white, with icy clouds stretching across the surface.

“The rings are more reflective in the infrared,” McCaughrean said, “so they’re much easier to see.”

The image also shows an “intriguing glow” near the tip of Neptune, NASA said in a statement. Because the planet is tilted away from Earth and takes 164 years to orbit the Sun, astronomers haven’t gotten a good look at its north pole yet.

Webb also spotted seven of Neptune’s 14 known moons.

The Neptune Space Telescope
This composite image provided by NASA on September 21, 2022 shows three side-by-side images of Neptune. From left, a photo of Neptune taken by Voyager 2 in 1989, Hubble in 2021, and Webb in 2022.


Above Neptune in the zoomed-out image is what appears to be a very bright pointed star, but is actually Triton, Neptune’s strange, huge haloed moon with the famous Webb diffraction spikes.

Triton, which is larger than dwarf planet Pluto, appears brighter than Neptune because it is covered in ice, which reflects light. Neptune, meanwhile, “absorbs most of the light that falls on it,” McCaughrean said.

Because Triton orbits the wrong way around Neptune, it is believed to have once been a nearby Kuiper Belt object that was caught in the planet’s orbit.

“So it’s pretty cool to go and see,” McCaughrean said.

As astronomers scour the universe looking for other planets like ours, they’ve discovered that ice giants like Neptune and Uranus are the most common in the Milky Way.

“By being able to look at them in detail, we can feed into our observations of other ice giants,” McCaughrean said.

In operation since July, Webb is the most powerful space telescope ever built and has already released an unprecedented amount of data. Scientists hope it will herald a new era of discovery.

Investigations based on Webb’s observations of both Neptune and Triton are expected in the coming year.

“The kind of astronomy we’re seeing now was unimaginable five years ago,” McCaughrean said.

“Of course we knew it would do it, we built it to do this, it’s exactly the machine we designed,” he said. “But to suddenly start seeing things at these longer wavelengths, which was previously impossible … it’s just remarkable.”

The Neptune Space Telescope
This image provided by NASA on Wednesday, September 21, 2022, shows the Neptune system taken by the Webb Near Infrared Camera.

/ AP

Earlier this month, the world’s newest and largest space telescope captured an extremely detailed image of thousands of never-before-seen young stars in a region known as Tarantula Nebula.

This summer, the telescope captured a fantastic pictures of jupiter and also provided the clearest view Cartwheel Galaxy until now.

Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, which mainly observes light in the visible part of the spectrum, Webb is optimized for studying longer-wavelength infrared radiation, allowing it to capture light from the dawn of space that has been stretched by the expansion of the universe itself. in the past 13.8 billion years.

Last month, the European Space Agency posted a new photo imaging the heart of Messier 74, located 32 million light-years away in the constellation Pisces, in a view that combines the Hubble and Webb telescopes.

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