Incredible new image of Neptune’s Webb telescope capturing details of the ring never seen before

Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) image of Neptune, taken on July 12, 2022, focuses on the planet’s rings for the first time in over three decades.
The most prominent features of Neptune’s atmosphere in this image are a series of bright spots in the planet’s southern hemisphere that represent high-altitude methane-ice clouds. More subtly, a thin line of brightness surrounding the planet’s equator could be a visual signature of the global atmospheric circulation that powers Neptune’s winds and storms. Additionally, for the first time, Webb teased a continuous band of high-latitude clouds surrounding a previously known vortex at Neptune’s south pole.
Credit: Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Image Processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

Infrared observations from the Webb Space Telescope reveal atmospheric and ring-like details never seen before

At an average distance of 2.8 billion miles (4.5 billion kilometers) from the Sun,

Neptune (Webb NIRCam)

This image of the Neptune system, captured by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), reveals jaw-dropping views of the planet’s rings that have not been seen with this clarity for more than three decades. Webb’s new image of Neptune also captures the details of the planet’s turbulent and windy atmosphere.
Neptune, an ice giant, has an interior much richer in elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, such as methane, than the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn. Methane appears blue in the visible wavelengths but, as evident in Webb’s image, it is not so in the near infrared.
Methane absorbs red and infrared light so strongly that the planet is quite dark at near infrared wavelengths, except where clouds are present at high altitudes. These methane-ice clouds are prominent in Webb’s image as streaks and bright spots, which reflect sunlight before it is absorbed by the methane gas.
At the top left of the planet in this image, one of Neptune’s moons, Triton, also sports Webb’s distinctive eight diffraction peaks, an artifact of the telescope structure. Webb also captured 6 more of Neptune’s 14 known moons, along with a smattering of distant galaxies that appear as faint spots and a nearby star.
Credit: Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Image Processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

The new Webb image captures the sharpest view of Neptune’s rings in decades

With its first image of Neptune, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope shows its impressive capabilities closer to home. Not only has Webb captured the sharpest view of the rings of this distant planet in more than 30 years, but his cameras also reveal the details of the ice giant in a whole new light.

The most striking thing in Webb’s new image is the crisp, sharp view of the planet’s rings. In fact, some of these rings have not been detected since NASA’s Voyager 2 became the first spacecraft to observe Neptune during its 1989 flyby. In addition to several bright and narrow rings, Webb’s image reveals the weakest dust bands of Neptune are effective.

“It’s been three decades since we’ve seen those faint, dusty bands, and this is the first time we’ve seen them in infrared,” notes Heidi Hammel. She is an interdisciplinary scientist for Webb and an expert on Neptune systems. Webb’s remarkably stable and precise image quality allows it to detect these very faint rings so close to Neptune.

Neptune (Webb NIRCam) labeled

In this version of the Neptune image of Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera), the visible moons of the planet are labeled. Neptune has 14 known satellites and seven of them are visible in this image.
Triton, the bright spot in the upper left of this image, far eclipses Neptune because the planet’s atmosphere is obscured by the absorption of methane at wavelengths captured by Webb. Triton reflects on average 70 percent of the sunlight that hits it. It is suspected that Triton, which orbits Neptune in a backward orbit, was originally a Kuiper belt object captured gravitationally by Neptune.
Credit: Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Image Processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

Since its discovery in 1846, Neptune has fascinated researchers. Located about 30 times farther from the Sun than Earth, Neptune orbits in the remote and dark region of the outer solar system. At that extreme distance, the Sun is so faint and tiny that Neptune’s noon is similar to a dim twilight on Earth.

Due to the chemical composition of its interior, Neptune is characterized as an ice giant. The planet is much richer in elements heavier than hydrogen and helium than gas giants,

Wide Field Neptune (Webb NIRCam)

In this image of Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), a smattering of hundreds of background galaxies of varying size and shape appears alongside the Neptune system.
Neptune, compared to the Earth, is a large planet. If the Earth were the size of a nickel, Neptune would be the size of a basketball. In most portraits, the outer planets of our solar system reflect this otherworldly dimension. However, Neptune appears relatively small in a wide-field view of the vast universe.
Towards the lower left of this image, a barred spiral galaxy is in focus. Scientists say this particular galaxy, previously unexplored in detail, could be about a billion light-years away. Spiral galaxies like this one are typically dominated by young stars that appear bluish in these wavelengths.
NIRCam was created by a team from the University of Arizona and Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Center.
Credit: Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Image Processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

Neptune does not appear blue to Webb, because the observatory’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) images objects in the near-infrared range of 0.6 to 5 microns. In fact, methane gas absorbs red and infrared light so strongly that the planet is quite dark at these near-infrared wavelengths, except where high-altitude clouds are present. Such methane-ice clouds are prominent as streaks and bright spots, which reflect sunlight before it is absorbed by the methane gas. These rapidly evolving cloud characteristics have been recorded over the years in images from other observers, including the

Webb diffraction points the thumb

(Click the image to see the full infographic.) This illustration shows the science behind Webb’s diffraction peak patterns, showing how diffraction peaks occur, the influence of the primary mirror and struts, and the contribution of each to the Webb diffraction peaks. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, Leah Hustak (STScI), Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

Webb also captured seven of Neptune’s 14 known moons. Dominating this Webb portrait of Neptune is a very bright point of light that sports the characteristic diffraction peaks (see infographic above) seen in many of Webb’s images, but this is not a star. Rather, this is Neptune’s large and unusual moon, Triton.

Covered in an icy sheen of condensed nitrogen, Triton reflects on average 70 percent of the sunlight that hits it. It greatly eclipses Neptune in this image because the planet’s atmosphere is obscured by the absorption of methane at these near-infrared wavelengths. Triton orbits Neptune in an unusual backward (retrograde) orbit, leading astronomers to speculate that this moon was originally a Kuiper belt object that was gravitationally captured by Neptune. Further Webb studies on Triton and Neptune are planned for next year.

As the most powerful telescope ever created, the James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s leading space science observatory. It will solve the mysteries of our solar system, look beyond distant worlds around other stars, and analyze the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners, the ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: