In another demonstration of its impressive capabilities, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) James Webb Space Telescope has now captured the clearest view of Neptune’s rings in more than 30 years. “The Webb cameras reveal the ice giant in a whole new light… Apart from a few bright, narrow rings, the Webb image clearly shows the fainter bands of Neptune,” NASA said in its official blog post on Wednesday.
Why is this image so significant?
The image taken by the Webb Telescope is exemplary as it shows the clearest view of Neptune’s rings in more than three decades. In 1989, NASA’s Voyager 2 probe became the first spacecraft to take a picture of Neptune. Voyager 2, sent by the space agency to explore the outer planets of our solar system, flew about 4,950 kilometers above Neptune’s north pole. Even after 45 years of launch, Voyager 2 is still moving away from Earth.
This latest image brings greater clarity and reveals features not even detected by Voyager 2. The remarkably stable and precise quality of the Webb image allows these very faint, dusty rings to be observed so close to Neptune. It’s also the first time we’ve looked at Neptune’s rings in infrared light.
Where is the characteristic blue color of Neptune?
Earlier, the Hubble Space Telescope revealed Neptune’s signature blue appearance. However, Neptune does not appear blue to Webb. Neptune has a methane-rich atmosphere. Neptune’s blue color is the result of absorption of red light by methane coupled with the same Rayleigh scattering process that causes Earth’s blue color.
But the Webb telescope does not work in the visible light spectrum. Its Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) operates in the near-infrared range from 0.6 to 5 microns. The methane present on Neptune absorbs red and infrared light so strongly that the planet is quite dark at these near-infrared wavelengths, except where clouds are present at high altitudes.
The James Webb Space Telescope
The James Webb Space Telescope is a space science observatory led by NASA with its partners the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. The mission aims to explore the mysteries of our solar system, distant planets orbiting other stars, and the mysterious origins and structure of the universe and how we fit into it.