L2 LAGRANGE POINT (WHTM) – Since it went into operation earlier this year, the Webb Telescope has been sending us one astonishing picture after another-images from hundreds, thousands, millions, even billions of light years away.
The latest amazing image comes from a little closer to home. It’s an image of the planet Neptune and its rings. This is the clearest view of the rings in over 30 years since Voyager 2 flew past the planet in 1989. Not only does the picture show the bright, narrow rings, but it also clearly shows Neptune’s fainter dust bands.
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The NASA press release states that the picture shows the planet “in a whole new light.” This is the literal truth. Webb’s specialty is imaging in the infrared, wavelengths that the human eye cannot see.
The spacecraft’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) images objects in the near-infrared range from 0.6 to 5 microns. So Neptune, which appears blue in visible light, looks dark in near-infrared, except where high-altitude methane-ice clouds appear.
Webb imagers also captured seven of Neptune’s 14 known moons, including Triton, the large star-like image to the upper left. Triton reflects an average of 70 percent of the sunlight that hits it, so it is far brighter than Neptune in this picture.
Neptune, discovered in 1846, orbits 30 times farther from the Sun than Earth, so far in fact that high noon on Neptune is only about as bright as twilight on Earth. A Neptune’s year is equal to 164 Earth years.
The planet is characterized as an “ice giant”, a planet composed mainly of elements heavier than hydrogens, such as oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur. (Methane, which causes Neptune’s blue appearance in visible light, is a compound of hydrogen and carbon.) Uranus is the solar system’s other ice giant; Jupiter and Saturn are classified as “gas giants”, because they’re mostly hydrogen and helium.
This is by no means the only image of Neptune and its satellites we will be getting from the Webb Telescope. Further studies of both Neptune and Triton are planned for the upcoming year.