Neptune’s elusive rings imaged by the James Webb Space Telescope

THIS IMAGE: Neptune's near-infrared (NIRCam) image of Webb, taken on July 12, 2022, brings the planet's rings into full focus for the first time in more than 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, representing high-altitude methane ice clouds. In a more subtle way, a thin line of brightness circling the planet's equator could be a visual signature of the global atmospheric circulation driving Neptune's winds and storms. In addition, Webb has identified for the first time a continuous band of high-latitude clouds surrounding a previously known vortex at Neptune's south pole. --- SEE SWNS STORY SWNSneptune. --- The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope demonstrates its capabilities closer to home with its first image of Neptune, released September 21. Not only has Webb captured the clearest view of this strange planet's rings in more than 30 years, his cameras show the ice giant in a whole new light. Most striking about Webb's new image is the crisp view of the planet's dynamic rings ??? some of which have not been seen at all, let alone with this clarity, since Voyager 2's flyby in 1989. In addition to several bright narrow rings, the Webb images clearly show Neptune's fainter dust bands. Webb's extremely stable and precise image quality also makes it possible to detect these very faint rings so close to Neptune.

This image by James Webb brings Neptune’s rings into full focus for the first time in more than three decades (Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI/SWNS)

The James Webb Space Telescope is not only used to capture stunning images from outer space.

It has also shown off its abilities closer to home – with its first image of Neptune.

Not only has Webb captured the clearest view of the planet’s rings in more than 30 years, but scientists say his cameras are showing the ice giant in a whole new light.

What is most striking about Webb’s new image is the sharp view of the planet’s dynamic rings – some of which have not been seen at all, let alone with this clarity, since Voyager 2 flew by in 1989.

In addition to several bright narrow rings, the Webb images clearly show Neptune’s fainter dust bands.

Webb’s extremely stable and precise image quality also makes it possible to detect these very faint rings so close to Neptune.

Webb also captured seven of Neptune’s 14 known moons. Webb’s portrait of Neptune is dominated by a very bright point of light that exhibits the characteristic diffraction peaks seen in many of Webb’s images; it is not a star but Neptune’s most unusual moon, Triton.

THIS IMAGE: In this version of Webb's near-infrared camera (NIRCam) image of Neptune, the planet's visible moons are labeled. Neptune has 14 known satellites, seven of which are visible in this image. Triton, the bright spot of light in the upper left of this image, far outshines Neptune because the planet's atmosphere is obscured by methane absorption wavelengths recorded by Webb. Triton reflects an average of 70 percent of the incoming sunlight. Orbiting Neptune in a backward orbit, Triton is thought to have originally been a Kuiper Belt object gravitationally captured by Neptune. --- SEE SWNS STORY SWNSneptune. --- The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope demonstrates its capabilities closer to home with its first image of Neptune, released September 21. Not only has Webb captured the clearest view of this strange planet's rings in more than 30 years, his cameras show the ice giant in a whole new light. Most striking about Webb's new image is the crisp view of the planet's dynamic rings ??? some of which have not been seen at all, let alone with this clarity, since Voyager 2's flyby in 1989. In addition to several bright narrow rings, the Webb images clearly show Neptune's fainter dust bands. Webb's extremely stable and precise image quality also makes it possible to detect these very faint rings so close to Neptune.

Neptune’s moons are also visible in the image (Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI/SWNS)

The telescope, an international collaboration with ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency), offers a unique perspective on our neighboring planets with its infrared sensitivity.

A statement from ESA Webb said: “Since its discovery in 1846, Neptune has intrigued and puzzled researchers. Neptune is 30 times farther from the sun than Earth and orbits one of the darkest regions of our solar system. At this extreme distance, the Sun is so small and faint that noon on Neptune resembles a dim twilight on Earth.

THIS IMAGE: In this image from Webb's near-infrared (NIRCam) camera, hundreds of background galaxies, varying in size and shape, appear alongside the Neptune system. Neptune is a large planet compared to Earth. If 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 grandeur. However, in a wide field of the vast Universe, Neptune appears relatively small. A barred spiral galaxy is visible in the lower left of this image. Scientists say this particular galaxy, previously unexplored in detail, is about 1,200 million light-years away. These types of galaxies at this relative difference are typically dominated by young stars that appear bluish at these wavelengths. --- SEE SWNS STORY SWNSneptune. --- The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope demonstrates its capabilities closer to home with its first image of Neptune, released September 21. Not only has Webb captured the clearest view of this strange planet's rings in more than 30 years, his cameras show the ice giant in a whole new light. Most striking about Webb's new image is the crisp view of the planet's dynamic rings ??? some of which have not been seen at all, let alone with this clarity, since Voyager 2's flyby in 1989. In addition to several bright narrow rings, the Webb images clearly show Neptune's fainter dust bands. Webb's extremely stable and precise image quality also makes it possible to detect these very faint rings so close to Neptune.

A few hundred background galaxies, varying in size and shape, appear alongside the Neptune system. (Image credits: NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI/SWNS)

“This planet is called an ice giant because of the chemical composition of its interior. Compared to the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn, Neptune is much richer in elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. This is readily apparent in Neptune’s characteristic blue appearance in NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope images at visible wavelengths, caused by small amounts of gaseous methane.

“Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) captures objects in the near-infrared range of 0.6 to 5 microns, so Neptune doesn’t appear blue to Webb. In fact, the methane gas absorbs so strongly that the planet is quite dark at Webb wavelengths, except where high-altitude clouds are present.

“Such methane ice clouds are noticeable as bright streaks and patches that reflect sunlight before it is absorbed by the methane gas. Images from other observatories have recorded these rapidly evolving cloud features over the years.

The James Webb Space Telescope was originally scheduled to launch on December 24, but was delayed due to unfavorable weather conditions at Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana.

The James Webb Space Telescope was launched on Christmas Day 2021 (Credits: EPA)

“Even more subtle, a thin bright line circling the planet’s equator could be a visual signature of the global atmospheric circulation driving Neptune’s winds and storms. The atmosphere sinks and warms at the equator and is therefore more luminous at infrared wavelengths than the surrounding, cooler gases.

“Neptune’s 164-year orbit means its north pole, at the top of this image, isn’t just visible to astronomers, but the Webb images suggest intriguing brightness in the area. A previously known vortex at the South Pole is evident in Webb’s view, but for the first time Webb has visualized a continuous band of clouds around it.’

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https://metro.co.uk/2022/09/22/neptunes-elusive-rings-pictured-by-the-james-webb-space-telescope-17428369/ Neptune's elusive rings imaged by the James Webb Space Telescope

Justin Scacco

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