Scientists are wasting no time and are aiming the powerful new James Webb Space Telescope at the entire universe as well as our own backyard. Recently, astronomers took data on the eighth planet from the Sun in our solar system, Neptune. NASA has published the first images of this world on Wednesday.
The third largest planet in our solar system, Neptune often appears bright blue in pictures due to the presence of methane gas. The Webb Telescope, however, observes light in the infrared part of the spectrum, which is why its Near Infrared Camera photos show the ghostly white planet. That’s because the methane in Neptune’s atmosphere absorbs reddish and infrared light.
In Neptune’s new view, the exception is the planet’s high-altitude methane ice clouds, which reflect sunlight before it can be absorbed by the methane. They look like shiny, bright features, says NASA.
The new image also shows Neptune’s rings, which have not been directly observed since Voyager 2 flew past the planet in 1989. These rings are difficult to see from afar because they are close to the planet and obscured by Neptune’s brightness. The Webb telescope detected both prominent rings and dust lanes.
“It’s been three decades since we last saw these dim dust rings, and this is the first time we’ve seen them in the infrared,” said Heidi Hamel, Neptune System Expert and Interdisciplinary Scientist at Webb.
The Webb telescope also captured seven of the 14 known moons in the Neptune system. Most prominent in this image is Triton above Neptune, with its bright diffraction spikes. This color is due to the frozen layer of nitrogen ice that covers Triton with high reflectivity.
NASA this week also revealed that there is a problem with one of the four observing modes of the Webb Mid-Infrared, or MIRI, instrument. The mechanism that supports one of these modes, medium-resolution spectroscopy, encountered friction during setup. NASA is assessing the problem and developing a way forward. Eric Smith, NASA Webb Telescope Program Scientist, – said Wednesday that he does not suggest that this problem will ultimately exclude the use of the tool.