Iridescent fairies are racing around a cosmic track, and Neptune’s rings sparkle in a stunning new view captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful off-world observatory yet built.
When University of Arizona astronomer Marcia Rieke got a chance to look at the new Neptune views, she says, as usual, I'm blown away by what we see.
Rieke, who is currently the principal investigator of JWST’s main imager, called the Near Infrared Camera, recalls trying to view Neptune’s rings years ago using a telescope on Kitt Peak in Arizona.
Clouds of methane ice appear as bright streaks and spots in the image, gleaming in the faint sunlight that reaches Neptune from about 2.8 billion miles away.
Whereas most planetary moons, including all the others around Neptune, orbit with their planetary host’s rotation, Triton does so in the opposite direction.
That orbit suggests to researchers that the body is probably a migrant from the outer solar system captured long ago by Neptune’s gravity.
What really pops out at me are all the gorgeous clouds and storms that are present in Neptune’s atmosphere, says Nikole Lewis, an associate professor of astronomy at Cornell University.
Neptune has the highest measured wind speeds in the solar system, with average wind speeds near equator of 700 miles per hour and peak wind speeds in places that are more than 1,000 mph.
While Lewis’s own work with JWST will focus on planets beyond the solar system, she calls the new image an amazing snapshot of its turbulent weather.
Unlike Voyager 2 which provided snapshots of Neptune from one moment in time JWST’s studies of Neptune and other denizens of the solar system will continue as long as the observatory itself endures.
By comparing these and future JWST images with those from Voyager 2, scientists hope to learn more about longer-term atmospheric changes on the planet, such as Neptune’s seasons, McCaughrean says.
While Neptune may be the crown jewel of the newly released snapshot, the zoomed-out view shows a little bit of the poetic side of the planets hanging in space,
McCaughrean says, referring to the background of far-distant stars and galaxies that seem to surround the ice giant.