NASAWebb captured the clearest look at Neptune's rings in 30+ years
our first time seeing them in infrared light.
Neptune has fascinated researchers since its discovery in 1846. Located 30 times farther from the Sun than Earth, Neptune orbits in the remote, dark region of the outer solar system. At that extreme distance, the Sun is so small and faint that high noon on Neptune is similar to a dim twilight on Earth.
This planet is characterized as an ice giant due to the chemical make-up of its interior. Compared to the gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, Neptune is much richer in elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. This is readily apparent in Neptune’s signature blue appearance in Hubble Space Telescope images at visible wavelengths, caused by small amounts of gaseous methane.
More subtly, a thin line of brightness circling the planet’s equator could be a visual signature of global atmospheric circulation that powers Neptune’s winds and storms. The atmosphere descends and warms at the equator, and thus glows at infrared wavelengths more than the surrounding, cooler gases.
Neptune’s 164-year orbit means its northern pole, at the top of this image, is just out of view for astronomers, but the Webb images hint at an intriguing brightness in that area. A previously-known vortex at the southern pole is evident in Webb’s view, but for the first time Webb has revealed a continuous band of high-latitude clouds surrounding it.
Webb also captured seven of Neptune’s 14 known moons. Dominating this Webb portrait of Neptune is a very bright point of light sporting the signature diffraction spikes seen in many of Webb’s images, but this is not a star. Rather, this is Neptune’s large and unusual moon, Triton
It’s Neptune’s large, unusual moon, Triton! Because Triton is covered in frozen, condensed nitrogen, it reflects 70% of the sunlight that hits it — making it appear very bright to Webb. The other 6 moons can be seen as tiny dots surrounding Neptune and its rings.
Neptune and Triton can still be seen at the center of the last image, which zooms out to show the big picture. Webb’s powerful infrared vision uncovers scores of background galaxies and stars.
Neptune’s rings are distinctly visible in this image taken by Webb. Set against a dark background, the planet resembles a pearl with ethereal concentric ovals around it.
A large, prominent 8-pointed object, colored in teal, is Neptune’s moon Triton on the upper left. A small, pearl-like Neptune is below and to the right of Triton. Its rings are a standout feature. Surrounding Neptune and its rings are 6 other moons, seen as tiny dots. Clockwise, starting from 3 o’clock, they are: Despina, Proteus, Larissa, Thalassa, Naiad, Galatea. The background is dark and sprinkled with a few other distant objects.
Labeled version of the previous image. There are arrows and labels in small white text pointing out each of the 7 Neptune moons that can be seen.
Zoomed out view of Neptune, its rings and its moons as captured by Webb. Neptune’s moon Triton, resembling a small teal snowflake, is the central focal point, with a tiny ringed, pearl-like Neptune below and to the right of it. The black background is filled with galaxies, 8-pointed bright objects and dots. A small white spiral galaxy in the bottom left corner is particularly visible.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI
The James Webb Space Telescope is the world's premier space science observatory. Webb will solve mysteries in our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.