The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) captured Neptune in stunning detail. The new images show the planet, some of its moons, and four rings. Since the discovery of Neptune in 1846, the planet has astounded astronomers around the world. The ice giant orbits the sun every 164.8 years and hides its secrets in one of the darkest parts of the solar system. But scientific infrared imaging devices installed on the world’s most modern observatory make it possible to see the hidden features of the planet and show them in a whole new light.
Neptune is the eighth and farthest planet in our system. It is 17 times larger than Earth and slightly larger than its twin, Uranus. It is the fourth largest planet in the Solar System and the third largest, orbiting our star at a distance of 30 times greater than the distance between the Sun and Earth.
The gas giant has 14 known moons. The largest is Triton, which, unlike the planets and most moons in our planetary system, is retrograde, indicating that it was once an asteroid possibly in the Kuiper Belt, but was pulled into Neptune’s orbit by gravity.
Neptune has a completely different structure from the larger gas giants Jupiter and Saturn. By comparison, Neptune is much richer than the elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. Therefore, astronomers classify it as an ice giant to highlight these differences. Same thing with Uranus. Scientists believe that inside these planets is a small icy core surrounded by a liquid ocean. These oceans are responsible for mass and not gas, as is the case with gas giants.
So far, Neptune has only been visited once by a ground probe, and it was Voyager II that passed Neptune in August 1989. But that may change when NASA makes a plan to return to the icy planets on the fringes of our solar system.
In modern paintings of Neptune, its rings are the most striking. Astronomers had hints of the existence of the ring system around Neptune before the visit of Voyager 2, but it was the close flight of the Earth probe about 4,950 kilometers above the north pole of Neptune that confirmed the existence of the ring system and generally provided all current knowledge about it. The new image provided by the Webb Telescope now clearly shows four of the six known rings.
The new images show two brighter rings of Neptune, as well as two slightly darker ones near the planet. They are the ones that aroused the greatest interest. Compared to the lighter icy rings, the darker rings are full of dust, which prevents them from shining.
“It’s been three decades since we last saw those faint, dusty rings. Now we’re seeing them in infrared for the first time, says Heidi Hamill, who works on the Webb Telescope project.
Low concentrations of methane cause Neptune to appear blue in images from the Hubble Space Telescope, which showed the planet at visible wavelengths. In the NIRCM images in the near-infrared range from 0.6 to 5 microns, the ice giant does not have such a beautiful color. In fact, methane absorbs infrared light so strongly that the planet is completely dark at these wavelengths, with the exception of high-altitude clouds. These clouds appear as bright streaks and patches that reflect sunlight before it is absorbed by the methane.
A more subtle and thin line of light near the planet’s equator could be the visible fingerprint of global atmospheric circulation driving Neptune’s winds and storms. At the equator, the atmosphere warms up, and therefore glows more in infrared light than the cooler surrounding gases. The new images indicate an interesting brightness in the north pole region of the planet that is not completely visible in the image.
Webb also captures seven of Neptune’s 14 known moons. The image is dominated by a Triton view with Webb’s “diffraction spikes”. Covered in solidified nitrogen, this moon reflects as much as 70 percent. Sun light. In the image, the light significantly outperforms Neptune because the planet’s atmosphere darkens by absorbing methane at near-infrared wavelengths.
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