When we imagine a world surrounded by cosmic halos, we usually envision Saturn. You could even say that Saturn based its entire personality on these dazzling rings – and rightly so. They are solid. Visible. Luxurious even.
But if you didn’t already know, I have the honor to tell you that Neptune also has rings.
They’re just a lot trickier and therefore super hard to see without super-powered telescopes. The planet itself, in fact, lies 30 times farther from the sun than Earth and appears to standard stargazing instruments as nothing more than a faint speck of light.
Despite our inability to admire Neptune’s fragile hoops from here, scientists spotted them wondrously circling the Azure Realm in 1989 thanks to NASA’s roving Voyager probe – and on Wednesday, the equally exceptional James Webb Space Telescope from the agency presented us with the second round.
“It’s been three decades since we’ve seen these faint, dusty rings, and this is the first time we’ve seen them in the infrared,” said Heidi Hammel, Neptune system expert and interdisciplinary scientist for JWST. , in a press release. “Webb’s extremely stable and accurate image quality allows these very faint rings to be detected so close to Neptune.”
And as if that weren’t enough, this new image shows Neptune, surely emitting a soft lavender glow under the JWST’s near-infrared lens, against a backdrop of galaxies expertly captured by the same next-gen space technology. This is unambiguous proof that the JWST is far too sensitive to capture what we might consider “empty space”. This machine is powerful enough to accidentally open a treasure box every time it stares into space.
Without further ado, Neptune:
Of all the images taken by the JWST so far, this is simply my favorite.
Its depth of field gives me existential butterflies because it’s disturbing to see an entire planet, rings included, hovering only in front of deceptively small galaxies that are actually hundreds of thousands of light-years in diameter. These galaxies are located gigantic distances from the cosmic neighborhood of our solar system (home to our own Neptune), but carry wads of After cosmic quarters.
Breaking down the objective of the JWST on Neptune
The bright luminescence we see in the JWST portrait of Neptune only exists because it is filtered out by the infrared powers of the telescope. We are looking at a representation of invisible infrared wavelengths emitted by the gaseous world.
We don’t look at the kind of visible wavelengths we’re used to – the ones that show us color, like those the Hubble Space Telescope works with, for example. Neptune still has its characteristic blue tint from elements on the planet, such as methane, but the JWST cannot show them to us. That’s not what it was built for.
“In fact, methane gas absorbs so strongly that the planet is quite dark at Webb wavelengths,” the European Space Agency said in a press release, “except where clouds at high altitudes are present. Such clouds of methane and ice are prominent as bright streaks and spots, which reflect sunlight before it is absorbed by methane gas.”
You can also see a thin line of brightness surrounding the planet’s equator, which the team says could indicate global atmospheric circulation related to Neptune’s winds and storms. “The atmosphere sinks and warms at the equator, and therefore shines brighter at infrared wavelengths than the cooler surrounding gases,” NASA said.
At the north pole, according to the agency, there is also an “intriguing luminosity” and at the south pole, further evidence of a vortex present on the surface of the orb.
Last but not least, of the 14 known moons of Neptune, the JWST captured seven: Galatea, Naiad, Thalassa, Despina, Proteus, Larissa, and Triton. Exhibiting the characteristic six-pointed glare of the JWST, Triton is seen in its odd aft orbit, offering astronomers hope that the JWST can help decode the bizarre situation.
“Dominating this Webb portrait of Neptune is a very bright point of light sporting the characteristic diffraction peaks seen in many Webb images,” the ESA said. “It’s not a star, but Neptune’s most unusual moon, Triton.”
It’s the context of the image that really appeals to me, though. If we zoom out on Triton and those delicately dusted rings of Neptune and those polar vortex mysteries, it becomes apparent that we can only see those cosmic details by sheer coincidence of existence in that iota of the universe.
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