() — The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has captured a stunning new image of ice giant Uranus, with nearly all of its wispy dusty rings on display.
The image is a demonstration of the telescope’s significant sensitivity, NASA said, as the fainter rings had only previously been captured by the Voyager 2 spacecraft and the WM Keck Observatory on Maunakea in Hawaii.
Uranus has 13 known rings, 11 of which are visible. in the new look of Webb. Nine rings are classified as the main rings, while the other two are more difficult to capture due to their dusty composition and were not discovered until the Voyager 2 flyby in 1986. Two other faint outer rings are also not shown in the latter image were discovered in 2007 from images taken by NASA Hubble Space Telescopeand scientists hope Webb will capture them in the future.
“A planet’s ring system tells us a lot about its origins and formation,” said Dr. Naomi Rowe-Gurney, postdoctoral research scientist and Webb Space Telescope Solar System Ambassador at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. in Greenbelt, Maryland, via email.
“Uranus is such a strange world with its lateral tilt and lack of internal heat that any clues we can get about its history are invaluable,” he added.
Scientists anticipate that future Webb telescope images may capture all 13 rings. Rowe-Gurney also hopes the telescope will discover more about Uranus’s atmospheric composition, helping scientists better understand this unusual gas giant.
The space observatory’s powerful Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) can detect infrared light that would not otherwise be visible to astronomers.
“The JWST gives us the ability to look at both Uranus and Neptune in a whole new way because we’ve never had a telescope of this size that looks in the infrared,” Rowe-Gurney said. “Infrared can show us new depths and features that are hard to see from here with the atmosphere in between. (Those) depths were invisible to visible-light looking telescopes like Hubble.”
More about Uranus
Located almost 3 billion kilometers (1.8 billion miles) from our sun, Uranus takes 84 years to complete one full rotation. The planet is unique in its tilt to one side, which makes its rings appear vertical, as opposed to Saturn’s horizontal ring system.
Surrounding Uranus’ north pole is a bright haze that NASA previously reported appears when the pole is exposed to direct sunlight during the summer. The atmospheric haze seems to get brighter every year, according to the space agency. With the exact mechanism behind the haze unknown, scientists are studying the polar cap using telescope images like this new Webb image.
In the original images that the Voyager 2 mission took from Uranus the planet appeared as an indistinct blue ball. However, in this new Webb image, similar to other recent Hubble Space Telescope images, storm clouds can be seen at the edge of the polar cap. Uranus’ tilt causes extreme seasons and this stormy weather, and scientists are monitoring and documenting the changes over time by comparing different images from telescopes.
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope also captured Uranus’s brilliant white polar cap in November, illuminating the haze’s increasing brightness compared to images from previous years. Webb’s new image shows the polar cap in greater detail than shown in the Hubble image, with a subtle glow in the center of the cap and more pronounced storm clouds that can be seen around the edges.
Uranus was identified as a priority for the study in 2022 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. “Additional studies of Uranus are currently underway, with more planned in Webb’s first year of science operations,” the NASA statement said after the announcement.