The James Webb Space Telescope’s tour of the Solar System has just shed light on the most distant planet in our cosmic neighborhood. The researchers have shared the first observatory image of Neptune, and offers the best view of the icy world’s rings in more than 30 years. The image is not only clear, it offers the first look at dust-based rings in the near-infrared spectrum. At these wavelengths, the planet doesn’t look blue: it absorbs so much visible infrared and red light that it takes on a dark, ghostly appearance.

The image also shows seven of Neptune’s 14 confirmed moons, including Triton (the ‘star’ at top), as well as Galatea, Naiad, Thalassa, Despina, Proteus and Larissa. The bright spots and streaks on the planet represent methane ice clouds, including an eddy surrounding a vortex at the south pole. Triton’s striking appearance is the product of both diffraction spikes from the James Webb telescope and a surface of condensed nitrogen that typically reflects 70 percent of sunlight.

A closer view of Neptune and six of its moons (Galatea, Naiad, Thalassa, Despina, Proteus, and Larissa).


Neptune is a particularly important target for scientists. At about 2.8 billion miles from the Sun, it’s far enough away to deal with conditions not present for the closest planets, such as very low temperatures and a very long orbit (164 years). Triton’s strange retrograde orbit even suggests that it could be a Kuiper Belt object that succumbed to Neptune’s gravitational pull.

This is just the beginning of studies using the James Webb Telescope, and researchers hope to collect more observations of both Neptune and Triton over the next year. As with recent looks at Mars and Jupiter, astronomers are only collecting preliminary data at this stage. We may have to wait a while before there is more information that can improve our understanding of Neptune and space in general.

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