The American space agency NASA published new images from the Webb telescope on Wednesday. The image shows the outermost planet of the Solar System, Neptune, its rings, and 7 of its 14 moons.
Dr. Heidi Hammel, the leading scientist of the Webb Telescope program, confirms the scientists’ enthusiasm for the images taken. “I’ve been waiting for these shots of Neptune for so long,” she declared.
The planet Neptune has been known to people since the middle of the 19th century, when it was discovered by the German astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle. America’s Voyager 2 probe provided the first more complete picture of what this gas giant looks like when it flew past the planet in 1989, far into space beyond the Solar System.
In the following years, observatories, and especially the Hubble telescope, tried to capture the appearance of Neptune and its surroundings. But the shots taken did not reach the quality of the images that appeared now.
Since the summer of this year, the Webb space telescope, which was created thanks to the cooperation of NASA and the European and Canadian space agencies, has been informing humanity about the shape of the near and distant universe.
More images from the James Webb telescope
NASA released four more images from the James Webb Space Telescope in July. In unprecedented detail, you can see the Carina Nebula, the “Eight-Burst” planetary nebula, the exoplanet WASP-96 and the Stephan’s Quintet galaxy group.
The Webb Telescope is the most advanced instrument ever sent into space by mankind. Thanks to its design and sensitivity to infrared light, it can look far into the past of the universe and recognize even the brightest objects.
Scientist Klaus Pontoppidan, a member of the Webb Telescope program, did not hide his enthusiasm for the new images, because they also show galaxies “hidden” behind Neptune. “It’s aesthetically fascinating to see distant galaxies and realize how small this ice giant looks compared to them,” the astronomer said.
The rings around the planet are most prominent in the images. The telescope will allow scientists to study them in more detail, for example to determine their size and composition more precisely. They are believed to be made up mainly of ice and space dust.
“It’s been 30 years since we last spotted these bright, dusty rings, and today is the first time we’ve seen them in the infrared,” Dr Hammel added.
Bright spots can be seen on the planet. Scientists believe that these are clouds of frozen methane that rise high into the atmosphere and can persist there for several days.
According to scientists from the University of Oxford, these may be similar clouds, such as the so-called cirrostratus (algae layer) occurring on Earth and consisting mainly of ice crystals. In the future, the telescope should help scientists get closer to the mystery of these bright spots and explain how they are formed and what they consist of.
An interesting object in the images is also a glowing, star-like object. It is the largest of Neptune’s 14 moons, Triton. It is interesting because it orbits Neptune in the opposite direction to the other moons. This is probably due to the fact that Triton was part of the Kuiper belt (the region of small cosmic bodies beyond Neptune) in the early phase of the Solar System’s existence and was subsequently pulled into the planet’s gravitational field.
Triton’s luminosity is caused by its chemical composition. The moon’s surface is mostly frozen nitrogen, which does not absorb light to the same extent as methane, which is present on Neptune.
Scientists hope that, thanks to the Webb telescope, they will be able to unravel whether the geological activity on Triton affects the chemical composition of the planet.
The images of Neptune are the latest result of the work of the Webb telescope. Earlier this week, NASA released the first images of Mars, and Jupiter was captured over the summer. In the near future, the Webb Space Telescope team wants to bring other parts of the Solar System closer to humanity and capture planets such as Saturn, Uranus or the distant dwarf planet Pluto.
What the James Webb telescope can do
The Webb Telescope is the most powerful space telescope to date. He should see the beginnings of the existence of our universe, when the first stars and galaxies were formed 13.5 billion years ago. According to NASA, it will directly observe a never-before-seen part of space and time. The device is designed to “see” infrared light, which now comes to us in this form from the most distant objects.
However, scientists will also use JWST (James Webb Space Telescope) to study planets and other bodies in our Solar System, to investigate their origin and development, and to compare them with exoplanets, i.e. planets orbiting other stars.
At the same time, the telescope will monitor exoplanets that are located in the so-called habitable zones and on the surface of which water could be in a liquid state. In connection with this, the search for possible signs indicating the possible habitability of such bodies is also expected.
To accomplish these tasks, the observatory has a giant mirror 6.5 meters in diameter, four scientific instruments, as well as a 21 x 14 meter shield that will protect the instruments from the heat of solar radiation and keep them in the necessary deep cold. The instruments in the equipment are the infrared camera NIRCam, the infrared spectrograph NIRSpec, the infrared device MIRI and the infrared imager with the spectrograph NIRISS.
The large primary mirror consists of 18 smaller hexagonal mirrors, each 1.3 meters in diameter and weighing 20 kilograms. Each one is made of beryllium and coated with a gold layer. Scientists chose beryllium due to the lightness and at the same time strength of this metal. In addition, it will maintain its shape even in the conditions of deep frost, which the telescope’s instruments need for their proper operation. Gold was chosen for the top layer due to its extremely high reflectivity of light, over a wide range of wavelengths.