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Neptune and rings shine in stunning photos from new space telescope







Space Telescope Neptune

This image provided by NASA on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, shows the Neptune system captured by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera, revealing the planet’s rings, which have not been seen with this clarity in more than three decades. Webb’s new image of Neptune also captures details of the planet’s turbulent, windy atmosphere. (NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI via AP)




CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Neptune and its rings haven’t looked this good in decades.

NASA released new glamour shots of our solar system’s outermost planet Wednesday taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. The pictures taken in July show not only Neptune’s thin rings, but its faint dust bands, never before observed in the infrared, as well as seven of its 14 known moons.

Webb showed Jupiter at its best in a series of fresh photos released last month.

Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI/Cover Images The NASA/ESA/CSA 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. 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. In addition to several bright narrow rings, the Webb images clearly show Neptune’s fainter dust bands. Webb’s extremely stable and precise image quality also permits these very faint rings to be detected so close to Neptune. Neptune has fascinated and perplexed researchers since its discovery in 1846. Located 30 times farther from the Sun than Earth, Neptune orbits in one of the dimmest areas of our Solar System. At that extreme distance, the Sun is so small and faint that high noon on Neptune is similar to a dim twilight on Earth. This planet is characterised as an ice giant due to the chemical make-up of its interior. Compared to the gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, Neptune is much richer in elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. This is readily apparent in Neptune’s signature blue appearance in NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope images at visible wavelengths, caused by small amounts of gaseous methane. Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) captures objects in the near-infrared range from 0.6 to 5 microns, so Neptune does not appear blue to Webb. In fact, the methane gas is so strongly absorbing that the planet is quite dark at Webb wavelengths except where high-altitude clouds are present. Such methane-ice clouds are prominent as bright streaks and spots, which reflect sunlight before it is absorbed by methane gas. Images from other observatories have recorded these rapidly-evolving cloud features over the years. More subtly, a thin line of brightness circling the planet’s equator could be a visual signature of global atmospheric circulation that powers Neptune’s winds and storms. The atmosphere descends and warms at the equator, and thus glows at infrared wavelengths more than the surrounding, cooler gases. Neptune’s 164-year orbit means its northern pole, at the top of this image, is just out of view for astronomers, but the Webb images hint at an intriguing brightness in that area. A previously-known vortex at the southern pole is evident in Webb’s view, but for the first time Webb has revealed a continuous band of clouds surrounding it. Webb also captured seven of Neptune’s 14 known moons. 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; it’s not a star, but Neptune’s most unusual moon, Triton. Covered in a frozen sheen of condensed nitrogen, Triton reflects an average of 70 percent of the sunlight that hits it. It far outshines Neptune because the planet’s atmosphere is darkened by methane absorption at Webb’s wavelengths. Triton orbits Neptune in a bizarre backward (retrograde) orbit, leading astronomers to speculate that this moon was actually a Kuiper Belt object that was gravitationally captured by Neptune. Additional Webb studies of both Triton and Neptune are planned in the coming year.



Launched less than a year ago, the $10 billion Webb is spending most of its time peering much deeper into the universe. Astronomers hope to see back to almost the beginning of time when the first stars and galaxies were forming.

NASA’s Voyager 2 was the first spacecraft to see Neptune in all its gaseous glory, during a 1989 flyby. No other spacecraft have visited the icy, blue planet. So it’s been three decades since astronomers last saw these rings with such detail and clarity, said the Space Science Institute’s Heidi Hammel, a planetary astronomer working with Webb.

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Hammel tweeted that she wept when she saw the rings, yelling and making “my kids, my mom, even my cats look.”

Webb is the world’s biggest, most powerful telescope, operating 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) from Earth. It rocketed into space last December.







Space Telescope Neptune

This composite image provided by NASA on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, shows three side-by-side images of Neptune. From left, a photo of Neptune taken by Voyager 2 in 1989, Hubble in 2021, and Webb in 2022. In visible light, Neptune appears blue due to small amounts of methane gas in its atmosphere. Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera instead observed Neptune at near-infrared wavelengths, where Neptune resembles a pearl with thin, concentric oval rings. (NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI via AP)




The observatory is in good health, according to NASA, except for one item.

NASA reported this week that a mechanism on one of Webb’s instruments showed signs of increased friction late last month in one of four observing modes. Observations are on hold in this one particular observing track, as a review board decides on a path forward.

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.


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