Neptune's rings are incredible in brand new Webb Telescope image

The ice giant, its rings and moon Triton appear as never seen before.

A view of Neptune, its rings and moons captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, 12 July 2022. Credit: Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, processed by Joseph DePasquale (STScI)
Published: September 22, 2022 at 9:01 am
Get your £10 Amazon Gift Card when you subscribe to BBC Sky at Night Magazine today!

So far, most of the James Webb Space Telescope's images have revealed infrared views of deep-sky objects like galaxies and nebulae.

Advertisement

And while we have already seen beautiful Webb images of Jupiter and its moons, planet fans have been waiting to see what else it can show us of our own Solar System.

NASA has now released an incredible view of ice giant Neptune, captured by JWST on 12 July 2022, that reveals the planet's rings and faint dust bands in amazing detail.

See James Webb Space Telescope's latest images

A view of Neptune, its rings, moons and large moon Triton captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, 12 July 2022. Credit: Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, processed by Joseph DePasquale (STScI)
A view of Neptune, its rings, moons and large moon Triton captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, 12 July 2022. Credit: Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, processed by Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

Planetary scientists are already discussing the new Webb image of Neptune in relation to those captured by the Voyager 2 spacecraft as it flew by the planet in 1989.

"It has been three decades since we last saw those faint, dusty bands, and this is the first time we’ve seen them in the infrared," says Heidi Hammel, interdisciplinary scientist for Webb.

Neptune's rings, as seen by Voyager 2
Neptune's rings, as seen by Voyager 2. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Cloud systems seen in Neptune's southern hemisphere, photographed by the Voyager 2 spacecraft. Credit: NASA
Cloud systems seen in Neptune's southern hemisphere, photographed by the Voyager 2 spacecraft. Credit: NASA

Anyone familiar with Voyager 2's images of Neptune might be wondering why the ice giant doesn't appear vibrant blue in these new JWST images.

The answer lies in Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), which images objects in the near-infrared range from 0.6 to 5 microns.

The methane gas that gives Neptune its blue hue in the Voyager 2 images actually absorbs red and infrared light, so the planet appears almost dark in near-infrared, except for those regions where high-altitude clouds are present.

An annotated view of Neptune, its rings, moons and large moon Triton captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, 12 July 2022. Credit: Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, processed by Joseph DePasquale (STScI)
An annotated view of Neptune, its rings, moons and large moon Triton captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, 12 July 2022. Credit: Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, processed by Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

The large, bright point of light with diffraction spikes that dominates the image is Triton, Neptune's largest moon.

But look closely and you can also see 7 of Neptune's 14 known moons surrounding the planet.

Triton appears so large because it is covered in nitrogen ice, meaning its surface reflects about 70% of sunlight that hits it.

It's thought that Triton may also contain a subsurface ocean, which is why a new mission called Trident to visit Triton is currently being planned.

Here's a video from the European Space Agency explaining what makes this new Neptune image so special:

NASA says more Webb studies of Triton and Neptune are expected in 2023, meaning we are soon to learn even more about this incredible planet and its large, mysterious moon.

Advertisement

But for now, this incredible image of Neptune captured by humanity's largest space telescope is a tantalising glimpse as to how JWST is poised to reveal our entire Solar System in a brand new light over the coming decades.

Authors

Iain Todd, BBC Sky at Night Magazine
Iain ToddScience journalist

Iain Todd is BBC Sky at Night Magazine's Content Editor. He fell in love with the night sky when he caught his first glimpse of Orion, aged 10.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Sponsored content