When we imagine a world surrounded by cosmic halos, we of course imagine Saturn. It could be argued that Saturn based his entire personality on these dazzling rings – and rightly so. They are solid. Easily visible. Even luxurious.
But if you don’t already know, I’m honored to tell you that Neptune also has rings.
They’re just much finer and therefore super hard to see without super-powered telescopes. The planet itself is actually 30 times farther from the sun than Earth is, and appears to standard stargazing instruments as nothing more than a faint speck of light.
Though despite our inability to admire Neptune’s fragile rings from here, scientists did get a great glimpse of them, skirting the azure realm in 1989 thanks to NASA’s Voyager probe — and on Wednesday, the agency’s equally outstanding James Webb Space Telescope presented us with a second round.
“It’s been three decades since we last saw these faint, dusty rings, and this is the first time we’ve seen them in the infrared,” Heidi Hamel, a Neptune system expert and interdisciplinary scientist for JWST. said in a statement. “Webb’s extremely stable and precise image quality allows these very faint rings to be detected so close to Neptune.”
And as if that weren’t enough, this new image shows Neptune sure to emit a soft lavender glow under JWST’s near-infrared lens, against a backdrop of galaxies skillfully captured by the same next-generation space technology. This is unequivocal evidence that JWST is too sensitive to capture what we might consider “empty space.” This machine is powerful enough to accidentally open a treasure box every time it looks into the void.
Without further ado, Neptune:
Out of every image JWST has done so far, this is simply my favorite.
Its depth of field gives me existential butterflies because it’s unsettling to see an entire planet, rings included, floating only in front of deceptively small galaxies that are actually hundreds of thousands of light years across. These galaxies lie at gigantic distances from our solar system’s cosmic neighborhood (home to our own Neptune), but they carry tufts of More ▼ space neighborhoods.
Disruption of the JWST lens on Neptune
The brilliant luminescence we see in JWST’s portrait of Neptune exists only because it is filtered by the telescope’s infrared powers. We are looking at an image of invisible, infrared wavelengths emitted by the gaseous world.
We’re not looking at the kind of visible wavelengths we’re used to — ones that show us color, like the kind the Hubble Space Telescope works with, for example. Neptune still has its signature blue hue, resulting from the planet’s elements, such as methane gas, but JWST can’t show them to us. That’s not what it was created for.
“In fact, methane gas is so strongly absorbing that the planet is quite dark at Webb wavelengths,” European Space Agency said in a press release, “Except where there are high-altitude clouds. Such methane-ice clouds are prominent as bright streaks and spots that reflect sunlight before it is absorbed by the methane gas.”
You can also see a thin line of brightness circling the planet’s equator, which the team says may indicate global atmospheric circulation associated with Neptune’s winds and storms. “The atmosphere descends and warms at the equator, and thus glows in the infrared at wavelengths more than the surrounding, cooler gases,” NASA said.
At the north pole, the agency says, there is also an “intriguing brightness,” and at the south pole is further evidence of a vortex present on the orb’s surface.
Last but certainly not least, of Neptune’s 14 known moons, JWST captured seven: Galatea, Naiad, Thalassa, Despina, Proteus, Larissa, and Triton. Displaying JWST’s signature six-pointed flare, Triton is seen in its strange reverse orbit, offering astronomers hope that JWST can help decode the strange situation.
“Dominating this Webb portrait of Neptune is a very bright point of light bearing the characteristic diffraction peaks seen in many of the Webb images,” the ESA said. “It’s not a star, but Neptune’s most unusual moon, Triton.”
The context of the image really gets me though. If we zoom out from Triton and those delicate dust-covered rings of Neptune and those mysteries of the polar vortex, it becomes apparent that we can see these cosmic details only by sheer coincidence of their existence in this iota of the universe.