June 9, 2023

The James Webb Space Telescope has returned its gaze from deep space to our home solar system, an image of a luminous Neptune and its delicate, dusty rings not seen for decades. NASA said this on 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 space probe to fly past the icy giant for just a few hours in 1989.

Now the Web’s unprecedented infrared imaging capabilities have provided a new glimpse into Neptune’s atmosphere, said Mark McCaughrian, senior adviser for science and exploration at the European Space Agency.

The telescope “takes away all that illumination and background” so that “we can start to tease out the atmospheric composition of the planet”, McCaughrian, who has worked on the Webb project for more than 20 years, told AFP.

In previous images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, Neptune appears deep blue due to methane in its atmosphere. But near-infrared wavelengths captured by Webb’s primary imager NIRCam show the planet as a grayish white, with icy clouds scattered over the surface.

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

The image also shows a “curious glow” near the top of Neptune, NASA said in a statement. Because the planet is tilted away from Earth and takes 164 years to orbit the Sun, astronomers have yet to get a good look at its north pole.

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

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


Looming above Neptune in a zoomed-out image appears to be a very bright spiky star, but is actually Triton, Neptune’s strange, giant moon haloed with the famous diffraction spikes of the web.

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

Triton is thought to orbit Neptune the wrong way around, having once been an object from the nearby Kuiper Belt caught in the planet’s orbit.

“So it’s a pretty nice vehicle to have a look at,” McCaughrean said.

As astronomers sweep the universe in search of other planets like our own, they find that ice giants like Neptune and Uranus are the most common in the Milky Way.

“By being able to see these in detail, we can key into our observations of other ice giants,” McCaughrian said.

Operational since July, the Webb is the most powerful space telescope ever built, and has already released a raft of unprecedented data. Scientists are hopeful that this will usher in a new era of discovery.

Research based on Webb’s observations of both Neptune and Triton is expected in the coming years.

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

“Of course, we knew it would do it, we built it to do it, it’s just the machine we designed,” he said. “But to suddenly start seeing things at these longer wavelengths, which were impossible before … it’s absolutely amazing.”

Space Telescope Neptune
This image provided by NASA on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, shows the Neptune system captured by Webb’s near-infrared camera.

/ AP

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

This summer, the telescope is a prisoner Stunning image of Jupiter and provided its clear appearance Cartwheel Galaxy As far as.

Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, which observes light mostly in the visible part of the spectrum, Webb is optimized to study long-wavelength infrared radiation, allowing it to capture light from the dawn of the universe that has been expanded by the expansion of space. Over the past 13.8 billion years.

Last month, the European Space Agency A new picture has been released Capturing the heart of Messier 74, 32 million light-years away in the constellation Pisces, in a view that combines the Hubble Telescope with the Webb Telescope.

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