Neptune as seen by the ‘James Webb’ super telescope: The sharpest image of its rings in 30 years

The NASA observatory offers a new view of the planet’s distinctive shape

The James Webb Space Telescope’s image of Neptune shows the planet's frozen methane clouds, dust bands, rings, and moons.
The James Webb Space Telescope’s image of Neptune shows the planet's frozen methane clouds, dust bands, rings, and moons.Space Telescope Science Institute Office of Public Outreach ( NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI)

The European Space Agency describes the James Webb Space Telescope’s new photographs of Neptune as the sharpest images of the icy giant in over 30 years. The largest astronomical observatory ever launched into space has taken clear pictures of the faintest bands of dust that surround the planet, which haven’t been seen with such clarity since the Voyager 2 probe captured them in 1989.

Usually seen as blue in color because of its hydrogen- and helium-rich composition, the solar system’s eighth planet appears quite dark in the new image because of the wavelengths detected by the Webb telescope’s infrared camera (NIRCam). For the first time, high-altitude cumulus clouds appear prominently in the satellite images; the clouds are bright because they reflect sunlight before the planet’s methane gas absorbs it.

Neptune’s planetary system as captured by the Webb telescope. The bright center is the moon Triton, which reflects sunlight because of its frozen crust of condensed nitrogen.
Neptune’s planetary system as captured by the Webb telescope. The bright center is the moon Triton, which reflects sunlight because of its frozen crust of condensed nitrogen.Space Telescope Science Institute Office of Public Outreach (NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI)

The Webb telescope also captured images of Triton, one of Neptune’s 14 known moons. In the images, Triton appears the brightest of all because it consists of frozen nitrogen, which reflects 70% of the sunlight that reaches it.

German astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle discovered Neptune in 1846. The planet is located in one of the solar system’s darkest areas.

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