The James Webb Space Telescope has provided new images of the planet Neptune and its rings, providing valuable insights into its atmosphere, NASA announced Wednesday.
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Astronomers haven’t had a clear view of the solar system’s most distant planet since the Voyager 2 probe’s brief and unique approach to the icy giant in 1989.
The telescope’s infrared vision provides a new way to analyze its atmosphere, said Mark McGreen, science and exploration adviser at the European Space Agency (ESA).
By removing all the glare from the sun’s reflection on Neptune’s surface and light pollution from its environment, the telescope will “begin to guess at the composition of the atmosphere” of the planet, the astronomer told AFP. 20 years on the James Webb project.
Because Neptune has methane in its atmosphere, it appears blue in visible-wavelength images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.
With James Webb’s NIRCam instrument, which works in the near-infrared, the planet takes on a grayish-white hue. The image shows a “strange glow” at one of Neptune’s poles, NASA said in a statement.
The telescope captured images of seven of the planet’s fourteen known moons. Triton, in particular, resembles a small star in its brilliance. Larger than the dwarf planet Pluto, it appears brighter than Neptune because sunlight is reflected off its icy surface.
Astronomers looking for planets outside our solar system have found that planets like Neptune or Uranus are more common.
“The ability to observe these up close will make it easier to observe other (ice giants) orbiting stars other than our Sun,” McCarrian said.
First in service last July, the James Webb is the most powerful space telescope ever used. It’s a kind of astronomical enablement “that was unthinkable even five years ago,” McCaughrean said.