NASA’s James Webb Telescope captured this latest image of Neptune in near infrared on September 21, 2022, two days before the anniversary of Neptune’s discovery. It is the clearest view of the ice giant in 30 years and provides a view of Neptune’s rings, some of which have not been detected since NASA’s Voyager 2 became the first spacecraft to observe Neptune during its flyby in 1989. The image clearly shows Neptune’s fainter dust bands. Located 30 times farther from the Sun than Earth. Neptune was discovered on September 23, 1846 at the Berlin Observatory, by astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle. Neptune orbits in the remote, dark region of the outer solar system where the Sun is so small and faint that high noon on Neptune is similar to a dim twilight on Earth.
“It has been three decades since we last saw these faint, dusty rings, and this is the first time we’ve seen them in the infrared,” notes Heidi Hammel, a Neptune system expert and interdisciplinary scientist for Webb. Webb’s extremely stable and precise image quality permits these very faint rings to be detected so close to Neptune.
According to the NASA statement, “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.
Covered in a frozen sheen of condensed nitrogen, Triton reflects an average of 70 percent of the sunlight that hits it. It far outshines Neptune in this image because the planet’s atmosphere is darkened 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 that was gravitationally captured by Neptune. Additional Webb studies of both Triton and Neptune are planned in the coming year.
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.