Here’s the first direct look at Neptune’s rings in more than 30 years

Humanity is seeing Neptune’s rings in a whole new light thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope.

In this infrared image released on September 21, Neptune and its spidery diadems of dust acquire an ethereal glow against the inky background of space. The gorgeous portrait is a vast improvement over the previous close-up of the rings taken over 30 years ago.

Unlike the dazzling belts that surround Saturn, Neptune’s rings appear dark and faint in visible light, making them difficult to see from Earth. The last time anyone saw Neptune’s rings was in 1989 NASA Voyager 2 spacecraft.passing by the planet, took a couple of grainy photos from a distance of about 1 million kilometers (ЗН: 07.08.17). In these visible light photographs, the rings look like thin concentric arcs.

As Voyager 2 continued to move through interplanetary space, Neptune’s rings were hidden again – until July. That’s when James Webb Space Telescopeor JWST, turned its keen infrared gaze on the planet from a distance of about 4.4 billion kilometers (ЗН: 11.07.22).

Neptune’s elusive rings appear as thin arcs of light in this 1989 Voyager 2 image taken shortly after the probe made its closest approach to the planet. LPL/NASA

Neptune itself appears mostly dark in the new image. That’s because the methane gas in the planet’s atmosphere absorbs most of its infrared light. A few bright spots mark places where high-altitude methane ice clouds reflect sunlight.

And there are eternally elusive rings. “The rings contain a lot of ice and dust, which reflect infrared light very well,” says Stephanie Milam, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and one of the JWST project scientists. The size of the telescope mirror also makes the images extremely clear. “JWST was designed to observe the first stars and galaxies throughout the universe so that we can really see fine details that we couldn’t see before,” Milam says.

Future JWST observations will look at Neptune with other science instruments. This should provide new information about the composition and dynamics of the rings, as well as how Neptune’s clouds and storms develop, Milam says. “There’s still a lot to come.” Here’s the first direct look at Neptune’s rings in more than 30 years

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