The James Webb Telescope has beamed back the clearest pictures of Neptune, the last planet in our Solar System, in over 30 years. The telescope has revealed the icy giant in a new light, hanging 4.3 billion kilometers away from Earth, at the edge of the Solar System.
The telescope has picked up a crisp view of the rings of Neptune, which had last been seen only in pictures taken by the Voyager 2 spacecraft when it conducted a flyby way back in 1989. Since then the Voyager spacecraft is flying in interstellar space, millions of kilometers away from Neptune where Sun’s impact ends.
“It has been three decades since we last saw these faint, dusty rings, and this is the first time we’ve seen them in the infrared. Webb’s extremely stable and precise image quality permits these very faint rings to be detected so close to Neptune,” Heidi Hammel, a Neptune system expert, said in a release with the pictures.
Webb captured seven of Neptune’s 14 known moons: Galatea, Naiad, Thalassa, Despina, Proteus, Larissa, and Triton. (Photo: Nasa)
Located 30 times farther from the Sun than Earth, Neptune orbits in the remote, dark region of the outer solar system and is so far from Sun that, according to Nasa, high noon on Neptune is similar to a dim twilight on Earth. Neptune is much richer in elements heavier than hydrogen and helium and is characterized as an ice giant due to the chemical makeup of its interior.
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The Webb Telescope used the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) to look at Neptune and the images show the planet to be purple, instead of its hazy blue glow. “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,” Nasa added.
In visible light, Neptune appears blue due to small amounts of methane gas in its atmosphere. Webb’s NIRCam instrument instead observed Neptune at near-infrared wavelengths, so Neptune doesn’t look so blue! (Photo: Nasa)
Apart from Neptune, the Webb telescope also captured Neptune’s 14 known moons, which dominated the frame in the dark sky. Triton was clearly visible in the observation, which was covered in a frozen sheen of condensed nitrogen reflecting an average of 70 percent of the sunlight that hits it.
The new images drop just hours after engineers announced a technical glitch with the spacecraft. Nasa has noted a mechanism that supports one of the four modes of the Mid-Infrared Instrument known as Medium-Resolution Spectroscopy (MRS) is displaying technical glitches. Science observations using the instrument have been paused till the anomaly is fixed.
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