James Webb image captures Neptune's rings in striking detail

Such an image has not been seen in nearly 30 years.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Webb's image of Neptune.jpg
Webb's image of Neptune


NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has released its first image of Neptune, according to a statement by NASA published on Wednesday. The spectacular image has captured the clearest view of this distant planet in more than 30 years.

A view of Neptune's rings

Most notable in Webb’s new image is the view of the planet’s rings, some of which have not been detected since 1989. The telescope even managed to capture some of Neptune’s fainter dust bands.

“It has been three decades since we last saw these faint, dusty rings, and this is the first time we’ve seen them in the infrared,” noted in the statement Heidi Hammel, a Neptune system expert and interdisciplinary scientist for Webb.

Neptune was first discovered in 1846 and has fascinated astronomers since then. The planet is characterized as an ice giant due to the chemical makeup of its interior. However, Neptune is much richer in elements heavier than hydrogen and helium than its neighbor gas giants Jupiter and Saturn.

In previous Hubble Space Telescope images, the planet appeared blue but Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) images objects in the near-infrared range from 0.6 to 5 microns, making the celestial object a beautiful tint of purple.

This is because its concentration of methane gas so strongly absorbs red and infrared light that the planet is quite dark at its near-infrared wavelengths, except where high-altitude clouds are present.

Triton also spotted

But Webb did not only produce a more colorful and clearer observation of the planet, but it also captured seven of Neptune’s 14 known moons, particularly Triton.

“Dominating this Webb portrait of Neptune is a very bright point of light sporting the signature diffraction spikes seen in many of Webb’s images, but this is not a star. Rather, this is Neptune’s large and unusual moon, Triton,” further explained NASA in its statement.

James Webb image captures Neptune's rings in striking detail
What can be seen in the new image.

Because it is covered in a frozen sheen of condensed nitrogen, Triton reflects an average of 70 percent of the sunlight that hits it, allowing it to outshine Neptune in the new image. This phenomenon is further amplified by the fact that Neptune’s atmosphere is darkened by methane absorption at these near-infrared wavelengths.

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Triton’s unusual backward orbit around Neptune has long perplexed astronomers, leading them to speculate that this moon was originally a Kuiper belt object that was gravitationally captured by Neptune. Webb will continue to study both Triton and Neptune in the coming year hopefully answering some of these long-standing questions.

The James Webb Space Telescope is currently the world's premier space science observatory, seeking to resolve mysteries in our solar system and understand the mysterious structures and origins of our universe. NASA and its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency are responsible for the telescope.

Just a day ago, the tool captured its first images and spectra of Mars, revealing atmospheric data that previous instruments couldn't detect. It is safe to say that Webb is already on path to make the discoveries we so desperately need to get a grasp on our elusive universe and the celestial objects, processes and systems that exist in it.

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