The Webb telescope offers a surprising image of Neptune and its rings

The James Webb Space Telescope has captured the clearest view of Neptune’s rings in more than 30 years, revealing this icy giant from a whole new perspective. Most striking in the new image is the sharp view of the planet’s rings, some of which had not been seen since Voyager 2 became the first spacecraft to observe them during its flyby of Neptune in 1989.

In addition to several narrow, bright rings, the Webb image clearly shows the fainter dust lanes of Neptune and some of its moons. Specifically, seven: Galatea, Náiade, Talasa, Despina, Proteo, Larisa, and Tritón. The latter stands out as a very bright point of light (upper left), with the characteristic diffraction spikes seen in many of the images from Webb, the space telescope of NASA, ESA and the Canadian space agency.

Webb’s Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) used to image objects in the near infrared range, so Neptune does not appear blue. In fact, methane gas absorbs red and infrared light so strongly that the planet is quite dark at the wavelengths used, except where there are high-altitude clouds. These methane ice clouds stand out as bright streaks and spots, reflecting sunlight before it is absorbed by methane gas.

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