New Webb Images Capture Rare View of Neptune’s Rings

Stsci_2022-046d_1024

stsci_2022-046d September 21st, 2022

Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI; Image Processing: STScI/J. DePasquale

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is showing off its capabilities closer to home with its first image of Neptune. Not only has Webb captured the clearest view of this peculiar planet’s rings in more than 30 years, but its cameras are also revealing the ice giant in a whole new light.

Neptune, located 30 times farther from the sun than Earth, orbits in one of the dimmest areas of our solar system. High noon on Neptune would appear as a dim twilight does to us. This planet, characterized as an ice giant due to a hydrogen and helium-rich interior, has fascinated and perplexed researchers since its discovery via mathematics, not eyesight, in 1846.

Most striking about Webb’s new image is the crisp view of the planet’s dynamic rings—some of which haven’t been seen at all, let alone with this clarity since the Voyager 2 flyby in 1989. Visible in the outermost ring, Adam’s ring, in this Webb image are clumps of dust called ring arcs. These thicker bands of dust have been observed to split and evolve, and astronomers will use Webb to investigate why and how that process occurs.

Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) captures objects in the near-infrared range from 0.6 to 5 microns. In the context of Neptune and other solar system gas giants, this means, with Webb, we’re able to study deeper into the planet’s turbulent atmosphere to learn more than ever before about circulation patterns, chemical composition, and atmospheric structure.

This first image of Neptune reveals several key features of the ice giant’s atmosphere only visible in the infrared. Most prominent in the image are a series of bright patches representing methane-ice clouds. These clouds are high in the atmosphere and reflect the sun’s bright light. Images from other observatories, including the Hubble Space Telescope and the W.M. Keck Observatory, have recorded these rich, moving features over the years.

More subtly, a thin line of brightness circling the planet’s equator is a visual signature of the global circulation of rising and falling material that powers Neptune’s winds and storms. At the equator warmer gases descend, glowing more brightly than the surrounding cooler gases.

Neptune’s 164-year orbit means its northern pole, at the top of this image, has remained just out of view for astronomers for the most part–until now. Webb picks up an area of heightened brightness at the north pole area, hinting at some sort of atmospheric structure that could be investigated in future studies. A vortex swallowing part of the southern pole is also clearer in Webb’s view, showing signs of an extremely detailed, multi-faceted structure with a clear, continuous band of clouds surrounding it.

Also photobombing Webb’s portrait of Neptune is a bright point of light sporting the signature diffraction spikes in many of Webb’s images—not a star, but Neptune’s most unusual moon, Triton. Covered in a frozen sheen of condensed nitrogen, Triton reflects an average 70 percent of the sunlight that hits it.

Webb also captured 6 more of Neptune’s 14 known moons as they follow a relatively close orbit around the planet.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s premier space science observatory. Webb will solve mysteries in our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.

Provider: Space Telescope Science Institute

Image Source: https://webbtelescope.org/contents/news-releases/2022/news-2022-046

Curator: STScI, Baltimore, MD, USA

Image Use Policy: http://stsci.edu/copyright/

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Image Details

Image Type
Observation
Object Name
Neptune
Subject - Solar System
Planet > Type > Gas Giant

Position Details

Position (ICRS)
RA = 0h 0m 0.0s
DEC = 0° 0’ 0.0”
Constellation
Pisces

Color Mapping

  Telescope Spectral Band Wavelength
Blue Webb (NIRCam) Infrared 1.4 µm
Green Webb (NIRCam) Infrared 2.1 µm
Orange Webb (NIRCam) Infrared 3.0 µm
Red Webb (NIRCam) Infrared 4.6 µm
Spectrum_base
Blue
Green
Orange
Red
Stsci_2022-046d_1280
×
ID
2022-046d
Subject Category
A.1.1.2  
Subject Name
Neptune
Credits
NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI; Image Processing: STScI/J. DePasquale
Release Date
2022-09-21T00:00:00
Lightyears
Redshift
Reference Url
https://webbtelescope.org/contents/news-releases/2022/news-2022-046
Type
Observation
Image Quality
Good
Distance Notes
Distance from Earth in miles: 2.69 billion
Facility
Webb, Webb, Webb, Webb
Instrument
NIRCam, NIRCam, NIRCam, NIRCam
Color Assignment
Blue, Green, Orange, Red
Band
Infrared, Infrared, Infrared, Infrared
Bandpass
Central Wavelength
1400, 2100, 3000, 4600
Start Time
Integration Time
Dataset ID
Notes
Coordinate Frame
ICRS
Equinox
Reference Value
0, 0
Reference Dimension
Reference Pixel
Scale
Rotation
Coordinate System Projection:
Quality
Position
FITS Header
Notes
Creator (Curator)
STScI
URL
http://stsci.edu
Name
Space Telescope Science Institute Office of Public Outreach
Email
outreach@stsci.edu
Telephone
410-338-4444
Address
3700 San Martin Drive
City
Baltimore
State/Province
MD
Postal Code
21218
Country
USA
Rights
http://stsci.edu/copyright/
Publisher
STScI
Publisher ID
stsci
Resource ID
STSCI-J-p22046d-f-4253x4134.tif
Metadata Date
2022-09-21T15:38:08-04:00
Metadata Version
1.2
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Detailed color mapping information coming soon...

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There is no distance meta data in this image.