No spacecraft has visited Neptune since 1989, when the NASA probe Voyager 2 He flew his way out of the solar system. Neptune, which is four times as wide as the Earth, is The farthest planet in our solar system. Observations of Voyager 2 whetted the appetites of astronomers, who were eager to learn more about the ice giant.
Currently we, re back. Somewhat.
On Wednesday, the James Webb Space Telescope cast its powerful, gold-plated eye on this distant world. The power of this infrared device, greater and The most advanced telescope Ever to space, it has provided some of the best views of Neptune in 30 years.
“I’ve been waiting a long time for these images of Neptune,” said Heidi Hamill, a NASA interdisciplinary scientist at the Webb Telescope and vice president of science at the Consortium of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C. “I am very happy that it worked.”
Earth observatories and Hubble Space Telescope They have taken many pictures of Neptune in the past three decades. But Webb’s views of Neptune, taken in July, offer an unprecedented glimpse of the planet in infrared light.
The telescope only took a few minutes to image Neptune up close, and another 20 to take a broader picture, revealing not only the planet but the countless galaxies behind it extending into the universe. “It’s aesthetically fascinating to see those distant galaxies and get a sense of how small the ice giant’s appearance is,” said Klaus Pontopedan, a Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, who operates the Webb Telescope.
Most notable in the telescope’s view are the rings of Neptune, which are seen surrounding the planet at a slight tilt due to its orientation toward Earth. The Webb telescope will allow astronomers to measure the reflectivity of the rings, providing an unparalleled view of this distant landscape. New images can reveal the size and composition of these thin bands, which may have been made of ice and other debris.
“The system of loops was completely mind-boggling to me,” Dr. Hamill said. “I haven’t seen it in this level of detail since meeting Voyager in 1989. It pops instantly.”
All over the planet there are bright spots, thought to be methane ice clouds, that rise high into the planet’s sky and can last for days.
“No one really knows what these things are,” said Patrick Irwin, a planetary physicist at the University of Oxford. “They seem to come and go, like fluffy clouds on the ground.” Future Webb Telescope observations could reveal how and what they are made of.
Webb’s images also show seven of Neptune’s 14 moons. The brightest moon is Triton, the largest moon on the planet, which scientists suspect was captured by Neptune’s gravity early in the history of the solar system. In infrared images, the frozen nitrogen surface makes Triton shine like a star, and it’s even brighter than Neptune itself, because methane dims the planet in infrared light. NASA He recently refused to send an expedition to study TritonNot much can be extracted from this picture. But Webb’s future observations should hint at Triton’s surface composition, and could show changes that indicate geological activity.
“Triton is a geologically active world,” Dr. Hamill said. “When Voyager 2 flew close by, I watched frigid volcanoes erupt. So there is potential for changes in surface chemistry over time. We will look for that.”
Dr. Hamill also believes that a glimpse of Hippocampus, Neptune’s eighth moon, is photographed just above the planet. “It’s very faint, but it’s in the right place,” she said.
These images of Neptune are just the latest in a web tour of the solar system. This week we received the treatment from the telescope The first glimpses of Marswhile we saw during the summer Spectacular views for the buyer. Much of our solar system will be subject to the wandering eye of the observatory, including Saturn, Uranus, and even distant icy bodies outside of Neptune — such as the dwarf planet Pluto.
“It shows that we are a multi-purpose observatory,” said Mark McGreen, Webb Telescope scientist and senior science advisor at the European Space Agency. “We can observe very bright things like Mars and Neptune, but also very faint things. Now everyone sees it working.”
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