Sat. Oct 1st, 2022

The latest images from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) show Neptune “in a whole new light,” according to NASA, which announced its $10 billion space travel observatory’s latest offerings on Wednesday.

Before capturing Neptune with its camera, JWST impressed the public with stellar photographs of nebulae and galaxies in deep space. Now he’s turned his gaze back to our solar system and snapped a shot that might challenge your perception of the distant ice giant.

This image provided by NASA on Wednesday, September 21, 2022, shows the Neptune system taken by the Webb Near Infrared Camera.


The images show Neptune with a luminous surface and two bright rings, interspersed with numerous moons. NASA says it captured the “clearest view” of Neptune in more than 30 years when Voyager 2 first observed Neptune during a flyby in 1989.

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The telescope is giving scientists an unprecedented view of Neptune’s atmosphere — its bright streaks and spots are actually high-altitude methane clouds reflecting distant sunlight. The Sun is so far away, in fact, that NASA says “noon on Neptune is similar to faint twilight on Earth.”

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Mark McCaughrean, senior science and research adviser at the European Space Agency, told AFP that with the James Webb telescope “we can start to figure out the atmospheric composition” of the planet because the Webb image “takes away all that glare and background”. “

When the Hubble and Voyager telescopes photographed Neptune, its surface appeared blue because all the methane gas in its atmosphere absorbs red light. But in the near-infrared region captured by Webb, Neptune is a grayish-white hue.

“The rings are more reflective in the infrared,” McCaughrean said, “so they’re much easier to see.”

This composite image provided by NASA on Wednesday, September 21, 2022, shows three side-by-side images of Neptune. From left, a photo of Neptune taken by Voyager 2 in 1989, Hubble in 2021, and Webb in 2022. In visible light, Neptune appears blue due to the small amount of methane in its atmosphere. Webb’s near-infrared camera instead observed Neptune at near-infrared wavelengths, where Neptune resembles a pearl with thin, concentric oval rings.


Webb’s images show Neptune surrounded by seven of its 14 known moons. What appears to be a bright, pointed star hovering above the planet is actually Triton, a moon of Neptune that NASA calls “large and unusual.”

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Triton is covered in icy, condensed nitrogen that gives it a glow that reflects about 70 percent of the sunlight it hits—far surpassing the relatively dim Neptune. In its press release, NASA points out that Triton orbits Neptune in retrograde (backward) fashion, leading astronomers to hypothesize that Triton was initially a Kuiper Belt object that was “gravitationally captured” by Neptune.

Neptune’s system marked with seven of its 14 known moons, imaged by Webb’s near-infrared camera.


NASA says it plans to study Neptune and Triton again with the Webb telescope.

The image also shows an “intriguing brightness” at Neptune’s north pole, a part of the planet that is out of astronomers’ view due to Neptune’s 164-year orbit. Neptune’s south pole faces Webb and the image shows the previously known vortex there, but reveals that there is a “continuous belt of high-altitude clouds surrounding it”.

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JWST is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which not only provided stunning images, but was also vital in providing scientific knowledge about our universe and its origins.

JWST has a much larger primary mirror than Hubble (2.7 times the diameter, or about six times the area), giving it greater light-gathering power and greatly improved sensitivity over Hubble.

When JWST launched on Christmas Day 2021, there was no second chance – its extremely remote location in the solar system makes it impossible for human crews to visit for repairs.

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Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s science mission manager, said that with the new telescope, the universe is “giving up secrets that have been there for many, many decades, centuries, millennia.”

“It’s not a picture. It’s a new worldview that you’re going to see,” he said during a media briefing in July.

— with files from Global News’ Michelle Butterfield

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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