NASA released two more pictures are made from data collected by the James Webb Space Telescope, and they reveal incredible details about the largest planet in the Solar System.
The data used to process the images were obtained in late July using the telescope’s Near Infrared Camera, which observes light at wavelengths slightly longer than the red part of the visible spectrum. By observing Jupiter at these wavelengths beyond visible light, a powerful space telescope can reveal previously unseen details of the planet.
One photo in particular shows the auroras at both poles, which are the result of Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field. The colors in these images are false – since infrared light is invisible to the human eye, the light has been reflected in the visible spectrum. The aurora borealis shines through the filter, which is reflected in redder colors due to the emission of ionized hydrogen.
Jupiter’s “Great Red Spot” also stands out in the new images, although it appears white rather than reddish. This white color indicates reflectivity from high altitude cloud tops.
The second image provides a broader view of the Jupiter system and includes a perspective of the planet’s thin rings, its two small moons, and the size of its auroras. The rings are extremely difficult to observe from a distance, as they are a million times fainter than the planet. Distant galaxies are also visible in the background.
Imke de Pater, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, led Webb’s scientific observations of the planet along with Thierry Fouche, a professor at the Paris Observatory.
“Honestly, we didn’t expect it to be this good,” she said in a press release accompanying the images. “It’s really remarkable that we can see the details of Jupiter along with its rings, tiny moons and even galaxies in one image.”
Why did these images take so long to process? The answer is simple: the James Webb Space Telescope does not take pictures with its large mirrors that can simply be beamed back to Earth. In contrast, the raw brightness data from Webb’s detectors is sent to the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. Scientists, including NASA researchers, translate this data into images, the best of which are published.
However, this data repository is publicly available, and citizen scientists can also use this data for image processing. In the case of the new images of Jupiter, this work was handled by Judy Schmidt of Modesto, California. For the image, which includes the tiny satellites, she collaborated with Ricardo Wessa, who studies planetary atmospheres at the University of the Basque Country in Spain.