People are seeing Neptune’s rings in a whole new light with the James Webb Space Telescope.
In an infrared image released on September 21st, Neptune and its halo of dust take on an ethereal glow against an inky sky. A stunning image of a huge improvement in the anterior proximity of the rings, which was taken more than 30 years ago.
Unlike the rings that surround Saturn, Neptune’s rings appear dark and dim in visible light, making them difficult to see from Earth. The last time anyone saw Neptune’s rings was in 1989, when NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft, after passing by the planet, snapped two photographs of the grain about 1 million kilometers away.SN: 8/7/17). In those images, in visible light, thin concentric arc rings appear.
As Voyager 2 continued through interplanetary space, Neptune’s rings were once again hidden — until July. That’s when the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, turned its sharp, infrared beam toward the planet, nearly 4.4 billion kilometers away (SN: 7/11/22).
Neptune himself appears most obscure in the new image. That’s because the methane gas in the planet’s atmosphere absorbs a lot of infrared light. A few bright spots mark where the methane ice clouds of high altitude reflect sunlight.
And then there are always tricky circles. “The rings have a lot of ice and dust in them, which reflect infrared light the most,” said Stephen Milam, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and one of the JWST’s project scientists. The eccentricity of the telescope’s mirror also makes its images extra sharp. “JWST wanted to look at the first stars and galaxies across the universe, to see fine details that we couldn’t see before,” says Milam.
JWST’s current observations will look at Neptune with other scientific instruments. That should provide new insight into the composition and dynamics of the rings, as well as how Neptune’s clouds and storms evolve, Milam says. “There is no more to come.”
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