NASA announced on Wednesday that the James Webb Space Telescope had unveiled its first picture of Neptune. The breathtaking picture offers the best look at this far-off planet in more than 30 years.
A view of Neptune’s rings
The view of the planet’s rings, some of which have not been observed since 1989, is the image’s most striking feature. Even some of the fainter dust bands of Neptune were captured by the telescope.
Heidi Hammel, an expert on the Neptune system and transdisciplinary scientist for Webb, observed in the release, “It has been three decades since we last saw these faint, dusty rings, and this is the first time we have seen them in the infrared.
Neptune was first discovered in 1846 and has fascinated astronomers ever since. The planet is called an ice giant because of the chemical composition of its interior. However, Neptune is much richer in elements heavier than hydrogen & helium than its gas giant neighbors Jupiter & Saturn.
The planet appeared blue in earlier Hubble Space Telescope photos, but Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) captures objects in the near-infrared spectrum between 0.6 – 5 microns, giving the celestial object a lovely hue of purple.
This is because the planet is mostly dark at near-infrared wavelengths, with the exception of high-altitude cloud regions, due to the concentration of methane gas, which strongly absorbs red & infrared light.
Triton also spotted
However, Webb not only produced a sharper and more vivid image of the planet, but it also managed to capture seven of Neptune’s 14 known moons, most notably Triton.
“This Webb 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, but this is not a star. Rather, this is Neptune’s large & unusual moon Triton,” NASA explained in its statement.
Triton shines brighter than Neptune in the new picture due to its freez sheen of condensed nitrogen, which reflects an average of 70% of the sunlight that strikes it. This phenomena is further enhanced by the methane absorption at these near-infrared wavelengths, which darkens Neptune’s atmosphere.
Astronomers have long been puzzled by Triton’s peculiar backward orbit around Neptune, which has led them to speculate that this moon was once a Kuiper belt object that was gravitationally caught by Neptune. In the upcoming year, Webb will continue to research Triton & Neptune in the hopes of providing some of the answers to these enduring queries.
The James Webb Space Telescope, the largest space observatory ever built, is actively working to answer solar system puzzles and unravel the origins and strange patterns of the universe. The telescope is owned and operated by NASA, along with the Canadian Space Agency and ESA (European Space Agency).
The equipment just finished taking its first Mars photos and spectra, revealing atmospheric information that earlier instruments were unable to detect. It is reasonable to say that Webb is already headed in the direction of the discoveries that we so sorely need to understand our elusive universe & the celestial objects, processes, and systems that exist inside it.