When we imagine a world embraced by cosmic auras, we usually imagine Saturn. Honestly, one might argue that Saturn built his entire personality on those dazzling rings, and rightfully so. It is solid. Visible. Luxurious even.
But if you didn’t already know, I’m honored to tell you that Neptune has rings, too.
It is much softer and therefore difficult to see without ultra-powerful telescopes. In fact, the planet itself is located 30 times further from the Sun than Earth, and standard stargazers seem to be nothing more than a weak spot of light.
While we can’t admire the fragile collars of Neptune from here, scientists got a fascinating look at them surrounding the azure kingdom in 1989 thanks to NASA’s Voyager travel probe — and on Wednesday, the agency’s equally extraordinary James Webb Space Telescope gave us its second round. .
“It’s been three decades since we last saw these faint, dusty rings, and this is the first time we’ve seen them in infrared,” Heidi Hamill, a Neptune system expert and interdisciplinary scientist at JWST, said in a statement. “Web’s very stable and accurate image quality allows these very faint rings to be detected near Neptune.”
And as if that wasn’t enough, this new image shows Neptune, sure to emit a soft lavender glow under the JWST’s near-infrared lens, against a background of galaxies masterfully captured by the same piece of next-generation space technology. It is unequivocal evidence that JWST is too sensitive to capture what we might consider “blank space”. This machine is powerful enough to accidentally open a treasure chest every time you stare into the void.
Without further ado, Neptune:
Of every photo taken by JWST so far, this one is my favourite.
Its depth of field gives me existential butterflies because it is disturbing to see a planet filled, including rings, just floating in front of deceptively small galaxies that, in fact, span hundreds of thousands of light years. These galaxies are located at huge distances from the cosmic neighborhood of our solar system (the home of Neptune), and yet they bear the more cosmic biology.
JWST lens smashing on Neptune
The bright shine we see in the JWST image of Neptune is only there because it has been filtered by the infrared forces of the telescope. We are looking at imaging the 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 the kind the Hubble Space Telescope does, for example. Neptune’s color is still distinguished by its blue color stemming from elements on the planet, such as methane, but JWST cannot show it to us. This is not what it was designed to do.
“In fact, methane is absorbed so strongly that the planet is completely dark at Webb wavelengths,” the European Space Agency said in a press release, except for places where there are high-altitude clouds. Shiny streaks and spots that reflect sunlight before it is absorbed by methane.”
You can also see a thin line of brightness circling the planet’s equator, which the team says may indicate global atmospheric rotation associated with Neptune’s winds and storms. “The atmosphere lowers and warms at the equator, and therefore glows at infrared wavelengths more than the cooler surrounding gases,” NASA said.
At the North Pole, the agency says, there is also “interesting brightness,” and at the South Pole, further evidence of a vortex on the orb’s surface.
Last but not least, of the fourteen known moons of Neptune, JWST caught seven: Galatea, Naiad, Thalassa, Despina, Proteus, Larissa, and Triton. Triton shows JWST’s serrated hexagonal flare, seen in its strange backward orbit, offering astronomers hope that JWST can help decipher the strange situation.
“The dominating Webb image of Neptune is a very bright spot of light characterized by the characteristic diffraction heights seen in many of the Webb images,” the European Space Agency said. “It’s not a star, but Neptune’s most exotic moon, Triton.”
However, the context of the photo is what really excites me. If we move away from Triton, the delicately dust-covered rings of Neptune, and the mysteries of the polar vortex, it becomes clear that we can see these cosmic details only by the sheer coincidence of their presence in this atom of the universe.
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