The James Webb Space Telescope has captured Neptune in a whole new light.
The $10 billion-dollar NASA observatory captured the clearest view of the ice planet’s rings in more than 30 years.
Some of the planet’s rings have not been detected since NASA’s Voyager 2 conducted its flyby in 1989 – the first spacecraft to observe Neptune.
The images the Webb team shared show the fainter dust bands, in addition to bright and narrow rings: the first time they have been seen in infrared light.
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Neptune, which orbits in the remote and dark region of the outer solar system, is characterized as an ice giant due to the chemical make-up of its interior.
In visible light, it appears blue due to small amounts of methane gas in its atmosphere, but Neptune does not appear blue to Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera.
“In fact, the methane gas so strongly absorbs red and infrared light that the planet is quite dark at these near-infrared wavelengths, except where high-altitude clouds are present. Such methane-ice clouds are prominent as bright streaks and spots, which reflect sunlight before it is absorbed by methane gas,” NASA explained.
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In addition, a thin line of brightness around the planet’s equator could be a signature of global atmospheric circulation, powering Neptune’s winds and storms.
Webb’s images also show an “intriguing brightness” in the northern pole and the first indication of high-latitude clouds surrounding a vortex at the southern pole.
The telescope also caught a glimpse of Neptune’s 14 known moons, including a bright point of light that is the large, unusual moon of Triton.
Because Triton is covered in frozen, condensed nitrogen, it reflects 70% of the sunlight that hits it.
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