Neptune’s rings appear rare in the surreal images captured by Webb


New images of Neptune captured with the James Webb Space Telescope reveal Neptune’s icy rings for the first time in decades (Credit: NASA).

Welcome to this week’s episode of The Intelligence Brief… as new images from the James Webb Space Telescope continue to set new precedents in our ability to observe the cosmos, this week we will examine 1) new stunning images of Neptune’s rings captured by Webb, 2) what makes the fourth-planet larger than our solar system an ice giant, 3) how Webb’s unique infrared images enabled new stunning images of Neptune’s spectral rings, and 4) other features and some quirks, captured in the new photos.

Quote of the week

No planet can tell us everything about the universe, but Neptune appears to hold more than its share of information on the formation of our solar system, as well as the solar systems beyond.

– Heidi Hammel

Before we get to the heart of what NASA’s Webb team, and the rest of the astronomical community, are talking about Neptune, some of the stories we’ve covered in recent days at The report include Tim McMillan’s recent deep dive into the dark world of government secrecy, where he offers an introduction to the US government’s confidential information system. Elsewhere, Chris Plain reports that a recently fallen meteorite containing water that is undeniably extraterrestrial was first found in the UK. Furthermore, MJ Banias explains why a “ghost ship” laden with 1.14 million barrels of oil may soon host one of the largest environmental disasters in the world.

Meanwhile, in the news video, could MIT’s MOXIE device be the future of oxygen production on Mars? Our own Kenna Castleberry recently met with the chief scientist at MIT who oversees this aspect of the Pereseverance rover’s mission to find out. Also, while on our YouTube channel, be sure to check out all the latest episodes of our flagship podcast, Curious rebel with Chrissy Newton, which you can now also subscribe to on Apple Podcast and all your favorite podcasting apps. And as always, you’ll find a full list of our recent stories at the end of this week’s newsletter.

Now, with business out of the way, it’s time to dive into what we’re learning from the latest series of images from the James Webb Space Telescope and what they’re revealing about one of the most unusual planets in our solar system.


Neptune’s spectral rings are captured by NASA’s Webb

In recent days, the world has received the latest fruits of the James Webb Space Telescope with a series of breathtaking images of Neptune and its moons.

For the first time in more than three decades, the planet’s moons have been revealed in vivid detail, showing a planetary feature most commonly associated with Saturn, whose distinctive rings are much more easily visible from Earth even with minimal telescopic help.

The rings of Neptune
Neptune’s rings seen by Voyager 2 in 1989 (Credit: NASA).

Neptune’s rings are themselves a relatively recent discovery, having been first detected in 1984 and later taken up by the Voyager 2 spacecraft five years later, in 1989. Although visible under the right conditions, the planet’s faint rings are more similar. planetary rings also found around the gas giant Jupiter.

However, thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope, we now have the sharpest images of Neptune’s spectral rings we’ve seen in years … and that’s just the beginning of what NASA’s first space observatory has begun to reveal on ice. desolate of our giant solar system.

On the trail of an ice giant

Since its discovery in the mid-19th century, Neptune has remained at the center of astronomers for both its appearance and location. Planted in orbit 30 times farther from the Sun than Earth, Neptune is located at an average distance of 2,794 miles from our local star, where distant sunlight hitting its atmosphere at noon does not seem brighter than an evening sky immediately thereafter. sunset.

With an equatorial diameter of over 30,200 miles, it is the fourth largest planet in our solar system and, like its three huge siblings, it also boasts a faint set of rings that Webb’s impressive optical capabilities have recently managed to capture in detail. surprising.

Voyager 2 images of Neptune (Credit: NASA).

Due to the unique chemical composition of its planetary interior, Neptune is designated an ice giant, mainly due to the abundance of heavier elements found there. This explains the planet’s characteristic bluish hue, which is amplified by the remnants of methane that linger around the planet and conveyed into visible wavelengths, particularly in earlier images captured by Webb’s predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope.

However, now that Webb is fully operational, it is already providing a new perspective on Neptune and its appearance, which includes the striking manifestation of its rings in recent images released by NASA.

In the infrared

Heidi Hammel, a Neptune system expert and Webb team scientist, says part of what makes the latest images so exciting is that they mark the first time Neptune’s rings have been imaged in infrared.

“It’s been three decades since we last saw these faint, dusty rings,” Hammel said in a statement, “and this is the first time we’ve seen them in infrared.”

One of Webb’s most interesting imaging technologies is its Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), which gives astronomers the opportunity to perceive distant regions of our universe at wavelengths that Hubble and Earth-based telescopes cannot. to do it. Because NIRCam collects light within the near-infrared visual range of 0.6 to 5 microns, many space objects he visualizes look strikingly different through Webb’s eyes.

For example, Neptune’s distinctive bluish tint is absent in Webb’s latest photos, appearing instead as a dark planetary mass as methane absorbs light at infrared wavelengths. The brightest regions visible in the photos are the result of the cloud formations surrounding the ice giant, which have been observed with the help of other telescopes in recent decades.

Rings and other things

However, the most noticeable feature revealed on the planet in Webb’s new photos is the presence of its rings, which at infrared wavelengths appear in astonishing detail, as astronomers have not been able to photograph since 1989.

Among other unique features that Webb was able to capture in his images include a vortex at the planet’s south pole, along with a “continuous band of high-latitude clouds surrounding it” that NASA first characterized as a JWST.

The new images also feature the 14 moons of Neptune, with the particularly stunning appearance of Triton, whose light gives rise to a vivid series of diffraction peaks seen by the Webb telescope.

Many of Neptune’s moons can be seen in Webb’s new images, which include the appearance of Triton stealing the show near the top of the frame (Credit: NASA)

“Triton reflects an average of 70 percent of the sunlight that hits it,” reads a recent NASA statement, noting that due to Neptune’s methane clouds absorbing the infrared light it reflects, Triton looks particularly striking by comparison. similar to a star. The moon is known for several strange characteristics, including its retrograde orbit.

Although Webb was designed with the specific ability to study the distant universe in startling new details, the latest batch of images collected by NASA’s newest space telescope clearly shows that we will likely learn more about those celestial objects closer to home over the years. coming and observing known and unknown features, with amazing visual clarity.

This concludes this week’s episode of The Intelligence Brief. You can read past editions of The Intelligence Brief on our website or, if you’ve found this installment online, don’t forget to subscribe and receive future editions emails from us here. Also, if you have a tip or other information you would like to send me directly, you can email me at micah [@] the report [dot] org or tweet me @Miche Hanks.

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