The James Webb Space Telescope (JWT) has captured the best, most detailed images of the planet Neptune in more than three decades. In August 1989, Voyager 2 was the only probe to fly past the ice giant, and since then it can only be explored from afar. The European Space Agency writes that the rings, some of which have not been shown since Voyager 2, stand out in the image of the JWT that has now been released. Also visible are seven of the 14 moons, as well as fainter bands of dust around the planet.
Neptune to James Webb dimmer than its largest moon
The image was taken with the near-infrared camera NIRCam, the ESA continues. It can absorb light in wavelengths between 0.6 and 5 micrometers, which is why Neptune does not appear here in its characteristic blue. Instead, the methane in its atmosphere would absorb a lot of light in this very region, making it appear comparatively dark to the space telescope. Meanwhile, by far the largest moon of Neptune, Triton, shines much brighter. It is therefore covered by condensed nitrogen, which reflects 70 percent of sunlight. Clouds can also be seen on Neptune, and even a storm structure that appears to encircle the planet at the equator.
For the space telescope, Neptune is already the third planet in the solar system to be photographed. A month ago, a picture of Jupiter caused a stir, and a few days ago the first pictures of Mars were added. Although the telescope’s instruments are primarily designed to study distant galaxies and exoplanets, the high-precision instrument can also make a significant contribution to studying such close-up objects. Further analyzes of Neptune and Triton are planned for the coming year, writes the ESA.
The James Webb Space Telescope is operated by the space agencies NASA, ESA and CSA and was launched on December 25, 2021. After a complex procedure of self-unfolding, it arrived at the L2 Lagrange point a month later. Here it looks away from the sun, earth and moon into space so that their thermal radiation does not disturb the infrared telescope. A huge protective screen blocks them – with a sun protection factor of one million. Since it began scientific work at the beginning of July, the quality of the data has not only fascinated the research community. However, there are currently technical problems with one instrument.
(Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI)