The stunning image from NASA’s James Webb telescope reveals Neptune’s delicate rings

When we imagine a world embraced by cosmic halos, we generally imagine Saturn. It could also be argued that Saturn based his entire personality on those dazzling rings – and rightfully so. They are solid. Visible. Luxurious moment.

But if you didn’t already know, it’s an honor to tell you that Neptune also has rings.

They are just much more delicate and therefore super difficult to see without super powerful telescopes. The planet itself, in fact, is located 30 times farther from the sun than the Earth and appears to standard stargazing instruments as nothing more than a faint speck of light.

Despite our inability to see Neptune’s fragile circles from here, scientists caught a glimpse of them encircling the blue realm in 1989 thanks to NASA’s Voyager traveling probe – and on Wednesday, the equally outstanding James Webb Space Telescope. agency presented the second round to us.

“It’s been three decades since we last saw these faint, dusty rings, and this is the first time we’ve seen them in infrared,” said Heidi Hammel, a Neptune system expert and interdisciplinary scientist for the JWST. “Webb’s extremely stable and precise image quality allows it to detect these very faint rings so close to Neptune.”

And as if that weren’t enough, this new image shows Neptune, sure to give off a soft lavender glow under the JWST’s near-infrared lens, against a backdrop of galaxies skillfully captured by the same piece of next-generation space technology. It is unequivocal proof that JWST is too sensitive to capture what we might consider “empty space”. This machine is powerful enough to accidentally open a box of treasures every time it looks into space.

Without further ado, Neptune:

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. He was officially captured on July 12, 2022.


Of every image taken by the JWST so far, this is simply my favorite.

Its depth of field gives me existential butterflies because it’s creepy to see an entire planet, including rings, floating solely in front of deceptively small galaxies that are actually hundreds of thousands of light-years across. These galaxies are located at gigantic distances from the cosmic neighborhood of our solar system (home of our Neptune), but carry wads Moreover cosmic neighborhoods.

A grainy, black and white image shows Neptune's fragile rings.

For comparison, here’s what captured Voyager of the Neptune Rings in 1989.


Decomposition of the JWST lens on Neptune

The brilliant luminescence we see in the JWST portrait of Neptune exists only because it is filtered by the infrared powers of the telescope. We are examining a description of the invisible infrared wavelengths emanating from the gaseous world.

We’re not looking at the kind of visible wavelengths we’re used to, the ones that show us color, like the kind the Hubble Space Telescope works with, for example. Neptune still has its characteristic blue tinge from the elements of the planet, such as methane gas, but the JWST cannot show it to us. That’s not what it was built for.


The Hubble Space Telescope shows Neptune in its blue glory following two dark storms on the planet. The larger one is towards the top center and the smaller one is on the right.

NASA, ESA, STScI, MH Wong (University of California, Berkeley) and LA Sromovsky and PM Fry (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

“In fact, methane gas absorbs so strongly that the planet is quite dark at Webb wavelengths,” the European Space Agency said in a press release, “Except where there are high-altitude clouds. Such clouds of methane. – ice are prominent as bright streaks and spots, which reflect sunlight before it is absorbed by methane gas. “

You can also see a thin line of brightness surrounding the planet’s equator, which the team says could indicate global atmospheric circulation linked to Neptune’s winds and storms. “The atmosphere drops and heats up at the equator, and therefore glows at infrared wavelengths more than the surrounding, colder gases,” NASA said.

At the north pole, the agency says, there is also an “intriguing brightness” and at the south pole, further evidence of a vortex present on the surface of the globe.

Last but certainly not least, of Neptune’s 14 known moons, the JWST captured seven: Galatea, Naiade, Thalassa, Despina, Proteus, Larissa and Triton. Displaying the JWST’s distinctive six-pointed glow, Triton is seen in its strange backward orbit, offering astronomers hope that the JWST can help decode the bizarre situation.

A close-up of Neptune and the very bright Triton, in which all the moons are labeled.

The JWST captured seven of Neptune’s moons.


“Dominating this Webb portrait of Neptune is a very bright spot of light that sports the characteristic diffraction peaks seen in many of Webb’s images,” ESA said. “It’s not a star, but Neptune’s most unusual moon, Triton.”

However, it’s the context of the image that really strikes me. If we shrink Triton and those delicately dusty rings of Neptune and those mysteries of the polar vortex, it becomes apparent that we can only see these cosmic details by pure coincidence that they exist in this shred of the universe.

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