When NASA’s Voyager 2 became the first and only space probe to fly past the ice giant for barely a few hours in 1989, astronomers last had such a clear picture of the planet farthest from the Sun.
Paris: The James Webb Space Telescope has shifted its focus from the far reaches of the universe to our own Solar System, taking an image of a brilliant Neptune and her delicate, dusty rings in detail not seen for decades, NASA announced on Wednesday.
The last time scientists could see the planet in such detail was in 1989, when NASA’s Voyager 2 became the first and only spacecraft to pass by the ice giant for a brief period of time.
According to Mark McCaughrean, a senior advisor for research and exploration at the European Space Agency, Webb’s groundbreaking infrared imaging capabilities have now given us a fresh look at Neptune’s atmosphere.
According to McCaughrean, who has spent more than 20 years on the Webb project, the telescope “takes all that glare and backdrop away” so that “we can start to tease out the atmospheric makeup” of the planet.
Due to the presence of methane in its atmosphere, Neptune appears to be a deep blue colour in earlier Hubble Space Telescope photographs.
However, the planet appears greyish white and has icy clouds striping its surface at the near-infrared wavelengths recorded by Webb’s primary imager, NIRCam.
The rings are considerably easier to spot in the infrared because they are more reflective, according to McCaughrean.
According to NASA, the image also reveals a “interesting brightness” at the summit of Neptune. Astronomers have not yet obtained a decent look at the planet’s north pole due to its tilt away from Earth and the fact that it takes it 164 years to round the Sun.
Seven of Neptune’s 14 known moons were also discovered by Webb.
James Webb Space Telescope
When viewed in a zoomed-out image, Triton, Neptune’s unusual, enormous moon that is encircled by Webb’s renowned diffraction spikes, looks to be a very brilliant, spiky star.
Due to its ice-covered surface, which reflects light, Triton, a planet that is bigger than Pluto’s dwarf planet, shines brighter than Neptune. Neptune, on the other hand, “absorbs most of the light falling on it,” according to McCaughrean.
Triton is thought to have formerly been an object from the nearby Kuiper belt that was caught in the planet’s orbit because of its incorrect orbit around Neptune.
Therefore, McCaughrean stated, “It’s quite cool to go and have a look at.”
Astronomers have discovered that ice giant planets like Neptune and Uranus are the most prevalent in the Milky Way as they scour the cosmos for new planets like our own.
We can better understand our observations of other ice giants “by being able to look at these ones in great detail,” McCaughrean added.
The most potent space telescope ever created, Webb has been in operation since July and has already released an abundance of unheard-of data. Scientists are hopeful it will herald a new era of discovery.
In the upcoming year, studies based on Webb’s views of Neptune and Triton are anticipated.
The type of astronomy we are witnessing now was unthinkable five years ago, according to McCaughrean.
Naturally, we anticipated that it would perform in this manner because we developed the machine specifically to do so. But it’s really astounding to suddenly begin observing objects at these longer wavelengths that were previously inaccessible.
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