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James Webb image captures clearest view of Neptune’s rings in 30 years

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Saturn is the planet most people associate with spectacular rings.

But a new image of Neptune — taken by NASA’s superspace telescope, James Webb — is giving its rival a run for its money.

The $10 billion (£7.4 billion) observatory has unveiled the ice giant in a whole new light, following the clearest view of the distant planet’s rings in more than 30 years.

Not since the Voyager 2 probe flew past Neptune in 1989 has it been captured in such incredible detail.

In addition to several bright, narrow rings, the Webb image clearly shows the planet’s fainter dust bands.

“It’s been three decades since we last saw these faint, dusty rings, and this is the first time we’ve seen them in infrared,” said Heidi Hammel, a Neptune systems expert and interdisciplinary scientist for Webb.

Beyond the planet itself are seven of the giant’s 14 moons, the most important of which is Triton. This appears almost star-like because Neptune is obscured from Webb’s view by methane absorption at infrared wavelengths.

Mesmerizing: James Webb Space Telescope has captured the brightest image of Neptune’s rings in over 30 years

Beyond the planet itself are seven of the giant's 14 moons, the most important of which is Triton.  This appears almost star-like (above) because Neptune is obscured in Webb's view by methane absorption at infrared wavelengths

Beyond the planet itself are seven of the giant’s 14 moons, the most important of which is Triton. This appears almost star-like (above) because Neptune is obscured in Webb’s view by methane absorption at infrared wavelengths

Neptune: the farthest planet in our solar system

Dark, cold and whipped by supersonic winds, ice giant Neptune is the eighth and most distant planet in our solar system.

Neptune, more than 30 times farther from the sun than Earth, is the only planet in our solar system not visible to the naked eye and the first to be predicted by mathematics before its discovery. In 2011, Neptune completed its first 165-year orbit since its discovery in 1846.

NASA’s Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft to have visited Neptune up close. It flew by in 1989 when it left the solar system.

Source: NASA

However, Triton reflects an average of 70 percent of the sunlight that hits the icy surface, making it extremely bright.

Neptune is located 30 times further from the sun than Earth and orbits in a remote, dark region of the outer solar system.

Compared to the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn, it is much richer in elements heavier than hydrogen and helium.

This can be clearly seen in Neptune’s distinctive blue appearance in Hubble Space Telescope images at visible wavelengths, caused by small amounts of gaseous methane.

Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) images objects in the near-infrared range of 0.6 to 5 microns, so Neptune doesn’t appear blue to the observatory.

In fact, the methane gas absorbs red and infrared light so strongly that the planet is quite dark at these near-infrared wavelengths, except where there are high-altitude clouds.

Such methane ice clouds are prominent as bright streaks and spots, which reflect sunlight before it is absorbed by methane gas.

Images from other observatories, including the Hubble Space Telescope and the WM Keck Observatory, have captured these rapidly evolving cloud features over the years.

More subtly, a thin line of brightness encircling the planet’s equator could be a visual signature of the global atmospheric circulation that drives Neptune’s winds and storms.

The atmosphere descends and warms at the equator, thus glowing more at infrared wavelengths than the surrounding, cooler gases.

Neptune’s 164-year orbit means that the north pole, at the top of this image, is just out of view for astronomers, but the Webb images indicate an intriguing brightness in that area.

Webb's Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) images objects in the near-infrared range of 0.6 to 5 microns, so Neptune doesn't appear blue to the observatory

Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) images objects in the near-infrared range of 0.6 to 5 microns, so Neptune doesn’t appear blue to the observatory

A previously known vortex at the South Pole is clearly in Webb’s view, but for the first time, Webb has revealed a continuous band of high-latitude clouds around it.

Triton outshines Neptune in this image because the planet’s atmosphere is obscured by methane absorption at these near-infrared wavelengths.

Triton orbits Neptune in an unusual backward (retrograde) orbit, leading astronomers to speculate that this moon was originally a Kuiper Belt object captured by Neptune’s gravity.

NASA has said additional Webb studies of both Triton and Neptune are planned in the coming year.

Webb’s infrared capabilities mean it can “look back in time” to just 100-200 million years after the Big Bang, allowing it to take pictures of the very first stars that shone in the universe more than 13.5 billion years ago.

In visible light, Neptune appears blue because of small amounts of methane gas in its atmosphere.  Webb's NIRCam instrument instead observed Neptune at near-infrared wavelengths, so Neptune doesn't look quite as blue

In visible light, Neptune appears blue because of small amounts of methane gas in its atmosphere. Webb’s NIRCam instrument instead observed Neptune at near-infrared wavelengths, so Neptune doesn’t look quite as blue

The $10 billion (£7.4 billion) James Webb Observatory (pictured) has revealed Neptune in a whole new light, after capturing the clearest image of the distant planet's rings in more than 30 years

The $10 billion James Webb Observatory (pictured) has revealed Neptune in a whole new light, after capturing the clearest image of the distant planet’s rings in more than 30 years.

The James Webb telescope: NASA’s $10 billion telescope is designed to detect light from the earliest stars and galaxies

The James Webb telescope has been described as a “time machine” that could help unravel the secrets of our universe.

The telescope will be used to look back at the first galaxies born in the early universe more than 13.5 billion years ago, and to observe the sources of stars, exoplanets and even the moons and planets of our solar system.

The massive telescope, which has already cost more than $7 billion (£5 billion), is thought to be a successor to the orbiting Hubble space telescope

The James Webb telescope and most of its instruments have an operating temperature of about 40 Kelvin – about minus 387 Fahrenheit (minus 233 Celsius).

It is the world’s largest and most powerful orbital space telescope, capable of peering back 100-200 million years after the Big Bang.

The orbiting infrared observatory is designed to be about 100 times more powerful than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope.

NASA likes to think of James Webb as a successor to Hubble rather than a replacement, as the two will be working together for a while.

The Hubble Telescope was launched on April 24, 1990 via the space shuttle Discovery from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

It orbits the Earth at a speed of about 27,300 km/h in low Earth orbit at an altitude of about 340 miles.

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