NASA’s James Webb telescope recently captured the rings of Neptune for the first time in over 30 years. The telescope also used infrared instruments to create the clearest images of the planet to date.
The last time Neptune was observed in such great detail was 1989 when the Voyager 2 probe flew past it. It showed several bright, narrow rings, but the Webb image clearly shows Neptune’s fainter dust bands. Potentially shedding a whole new light on the ice giant.
“The longer wavelengths are brand new and could give us a window onto the deep circulation patterns, with a bright equatorial band that looks a bit like the bright bands of Jupiter and Saturn,” professor Leigh Fletcher, from Leicester University, said. While at the Europlanet Science Congress in Granada, Spain, he said everyone is “trying to interpret this on our phones, but it’s incredible to see those rings, and we’re accessing wavelengths that no-one has seen before.”
Scientists also believe that the different cloud structures could tell us a lot about the workings of Neptune’s atmosphere. The planet’s atmosphere contains a lot of hydrogen, helium, ice, water, ammonia, and methane. Fletcher says “Neptune’s powerful storms are as active as ever, and the whole Neptune family is represented here, with those ring moons and Triton.”
Because as cool as seeing Neptune more in-depth is, the telescope also captured 7 of the planet’s 14 moons. The most significant of these photographed moons is the aforementioned Triton. This moon appears star-like in the image. This is because the surface of Neptune is darkened in the telescope’s view due to methane absorption at infrared wavelengths. Where as Triton reflects about 70% of the sunlight that strikes its surface, making it appear way brighter in the Webb photographs.
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