When we imagine the world surrounded by cosmic halos, we usually imagine Saturn. To be honest, one could argue that Saturn based his entire personality on these dazzling rings, and rightly so. They are solid. Visible. Luxurious even.
But if you didn’t already know, I’m honored to tell you that Neptune also has rings.
They are just much sleeker and therefore very difficult to see without super-powerful telescopes. The planet itself is, in fact, 30 times further from the Sun than Earth, and to standard stargazing instruments it appears to be nothing more than a faint speck of light.
While we can’t view Neptune’s fragile rings from here, scientists caught a glimpse of them encircling the azure realm in 1989 with NASA’s Voyager traveling probe, and on Wednesday, the equally exceptional 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 infrared,” Heidi Hummel, Neptune system expert and interdisciplinary scientist at JWST, said in a statement. “The extremely stable and accurate quality of the Webb image makes it possible to detect these very faint rings so close to Neptune.”
And as if that weren’t enough, this new image shows Neptune clearly emitting a soft lilac glow under the JWST’s near-infrared lens, against the backdrop of galaxies cleverly captured by the same next-generation space technology. This is clear evidence that JWST is too sensitive to capture what we might call “blank space”. This machine is powerful enough to accidentally open a treasure box every time it looks into the void.
Without further ado, Neptune:
Of all the images JWST has taken so far, this is simply my favorite.
Its depth of field evokes existential butterflies in me because it is unsettling to see a complete planet, including rings, exceptionally floating in front of deceptively small galaxies that are actually hundreds of thousands of light-years across. These galaxies are at gigantic distances from the cosmic neighborhood of our solar system (where our own Neptune is), but they carry more space quarters.
Destruction of the JWST lens on Neptune
The bright glow we see in JWST’s portrait of Neptune only exists because it’s been filtered out by the telescope’s infrared light. We are looking at an image of the invisible infrared wavelengths emitted by the gaseous world.
We don’t look at the visible wavelengths we’re used to, the ones that show us color, like the ones that the Hubble Space Telescope works with. Neptune still has a distinctive blue tint due to elements on the planet, such as methane gas, but JWST can’t show them to us. That’s not what it was built for.
“In fact, methane gas is so absorbent that the planet is quite dark at Webb wavelengths,” the European Space Agency said in a press release. — With the exception of high-altitude clouds. bright streaks and patches that reflect sunlight before it is absorbed by methane gas.”
You can also see a thin band of brightness circling the planet’s equator, which the team says could indicate global atmospheric circulation associated with Neptune’s winds and storms. “The atmosphere sinks and warms at the equator and thus glows more in the infrared than the surrounding cooler gases,” NASA said.
There is also “intriguing brightness” at the north pole, according to the agency, and further evidence of a vortex on the ball’s surface at the south pole.
Last but not least, of the 14 known moons of Neptune, JWST caught seven: Galatea, Naiad, Thalassa, Despina, Proteus, Larissa, and Triton. Displaying JWST’s signature six-spiked glow, Triton is visible in its strange reverse orbit, giving astronomers hope that JWST can help decipher the bizarre situation.
“This Webb portrait of Neptune is dominated by a very bright point of light with the characteristic bursts of diffraction seen in many Webb images,” ESA said. “It’s not a star, but Neptune’s most unusual moon, Triton.”
However, the context of the image really turns me on. If we zoom out on Triton and those delicately dusty rings of Neptune and those polar vortex mysteries, it becomes obvious that we can only see these cosmic details through the sheer coincidence of being in that iota of the universe.