The James Webb Space Telescope has captured a new infrared portrait of the planet Neptune, its faint rings and seven of its moons

Neptune's Elusive Rings Captured by James Webb Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has revealed the sharpest view of Neptune’s rings since the Voyager 2 spacecraft visited the ice giant over 30 years ago.
Neptune, the eighth and most distant planet from the Sun, is something of an oddball, even by the weird and wonderful standards of our solar system. The ice giant owes its spectacular blue hue to the presence of methane in its crushing atmosphere, where it is thought to be so hot and dense that it quite literally rains diamonds.
Orbiting roughly 2.8 billion miles (4.5 billion km) from the Sun - which is roughly 30 times the distance between Earth and our star - Neptune is the only planet in our solar system that is impossible to see with the naked eye, even on the clearest of nights.
James Webb Space Telescope ImagesDeep Field: SMACS 0723 - Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

From NASA: NASA's James Webb Space Telescope has produced the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date. Known as Webb’s First Deep Field, this image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 is overflowing with detail.<br>

Thousands of galaxies – including the faintest objects ever observed in the infrared – have appeared in Webb’s view for the first time. This slice of the vast universe is approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground. Star Forming Region: NGC 3324 in Carina Nebula - Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

From NASA: This landscape of 'mountains' and 'valleys' speckled with glittering stars is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by NASA's new James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals for the first time previously invisible areas of star birth.<br>

Called the Cosmic Cliffs, Webb's seemingly three-dimensional picture looks like craggy mountains on a moonlit evening. In reality, it is the edge of the giant, gaseous cavity within NGC 3324, and the tallest 'peaks' in this image are about 7 light-years high. The cavernous area has been carved from the nebula by the intense ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds from extremely massive, hot, young stars located in the center of the bubble, above the area shown in this image. Interacting Galaxies: Stephan's Quintet - Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

From NASA: Stephan's Quintet, a visual grouping of five galaxies, is best known for being prominently featured in the holiday classic film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Today, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope reveals Stephan’s Quintet in a new light. This enormous mosaic is Webb’s largest image to date, covering about one-fifth of the Moon’s diameter. It contains over 150 million pixels and is constructed from almost 1,000 separate image files. The information from Webb provides new insights into how galactic interactions may have driven galaxy evolution in the early universe.<br>

With its powerful, infrared vision and extremely high spatial resolution, Webb shows never-before-seen details in this galaxy group. Sparkling clusters of millions of young stars and starburst regions of fresh star birth grace the image. Sweeping tails of gas, dust and stars are being pulled from several of the galaxies due to gravitational interactions. Most dramatically, Webb captures huge shock waves as one of the galaxies, NGC 7318B, smashes through the cluster. 
Stellar Death: Planetary Nebula NGC 3132 - Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

From NASA: Some stars save the best for last.<br>

The dimmer star at the center of this scene has been sending out rings of gas and dust for thousands of years in all directions, and NASA's James Webb Space Telescope has revealed for the first time that this star is cloaked in dust.<br>

Two cameras aboard Webb captured the latest image of this planetary nebula, cataloged as NGC 3132, and known informally as the Southern Ring Nebula. It is approximately 2,500 light-years away.
p>Webb will allow astronomers to dig into many more specifics about planetary nebulae like this one – clouds of gas and dust expelled by dying stars. Understanding which molecules are present, and where they lie throughout the shells of gas and dust will help researchers refine their knowledge of these objects.Exoplanet: WASP-96B - Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

From NASA: NASA's James Webb Space Telescope has captured the distinct signature of water, along with evidence for clouds and haze, in the atmosphere surrounding a hot, puffy gas giant planet orbiting a distant Sun-like star.<br>

The observation, which reveals the presence of specific gas molecules based on tiny decreases in the brightness of precise colors of light, is the most detailed of its kind to date, demonstrating Webb’s unprecedented ability to analyze atmospheres hundreds of light-years away.<br>

While the Hubble Space Telescope has analyzed numerous exoplanet atmospheres over the past two decades, capturing the first clear detection of water in 2013, Webb’s immediate and more detailed observation marks a giant leap forward in the quest to characterize potentially habitable planets beyond Earth.
Thankfully, however, a number of powerful ground based and orbital telescopes - including Keck and Hubble - have observed the world, and in 1989 NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft became the only human-made object to complete a flyby of the blue planet.
These decades of observations have revealed a lot about this mysterious world’s true nature. Astronomers have been able to probe Neptune’s chemical composition, and watch a vast planet-sized storm rage in its atmosphere.
Data from the Voyager 2 flyby also confirmed the presence of a faint ring system and a collection of dusty bands known as arcs, which are thought to have been sculpted and maintained by the gravitational influence of the nearby moon Galatea.
The New James Webb Space Telescope portrait of Neptune (Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI)
The New James Webb Space Telescope portrait of Neptune (Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI)

Now, a new image captured by the powerful James Webb Space Telescope has given us the best view of Neptune’s rings since Voyager 2 visited the distant world 30 years ago.
The new image was captured using Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). In the infrared part of the light spectrum, Neptune’s rings reveal themselves as a collection of well defined halos circling the ghostly planet, punctuated by a population of diffuse dust bands.
Seven of Neptune’s moons can also be seen dotting the image, including the brilliantly luminous form of Tritan, which dominates the upper portion of the vista. Neptune’s largest natural satellite travels around its host planet in the opposite direction to the ice giant’s other satellites in what is known as a retrograde orbit.
Scientists believe that Tritan was once a roaming planetoid that travelled the kuiper belt, a distant icy debris field that surrounds our star. However, at some point in the ancient past, the wanderer passed too close to Neptune, and was captured by it’s powerful gravitational pull.
An annotated, infrared view of Neptune captured by the JWST (Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI)
An annotated, infrared view of Neptune captured by the JWST (Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI)

In the present day, Triton is coated in a frozen layer of nitrogen, which allows it to reflect around 70 percent of the sunlight that strikes its surface. Because of this, it is able to outshine mighty Neptune, despite being smaller than Earth’s moon.
Neptune’s apparent dullness in the new image is also down to its atmospheric composition. The methane present in its upper atmosphere is very adept at absorbing the red, and infrared light from our Sun, and at reflecting other wavelengths. This is why the planet appears blue in visible light images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.
However, these same infrared absorbing qualities render the majority of Neptune’s surface relatively dark in the new JWST portrait. That said, bright bands of high-altitude clouds and a prominent storm can be seen winding their way across the face of the alien world.
A subtle brighter band of infrared light can also be seen near the equator, marking out the region where atmospheric ice clouds fall towards the surface and warm up.
The JWST is set to turn its gaze on Neptune again later this year. Be sure to check out IGN’s science page to keep up to date with all of the biggest and weirdest developments in space exploration.

Anthony Wood is a freelance science writer for IGN
This story originally appeared on: IGN - Author:Anthony Wood

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