NASA Releases Staggering Photos of Neptune

Our most distant planet's rings are crisp
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 21, 2022 1:28 PM CDT
NASA Releases Staggering Photos of Neptune
This composite image provided by NASA on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, shows three side-by-side images of Neptune. From left, a photo of Neptune taken by Voyager 2 in 1989, Hubble in 2021, and Webb in 2022.   (NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI via AP)

If you picture Neptune as a blue ring-less planet, new images released Wednesday from NASA's James Webb Space Telescope are about to set you straight. The images show what CNN refers to as the planet's "crisp, narrow rings." As Heidi Hammel of the Webb project says, "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." She's referring to 1989, when Voyager 2 took the first photos of the rings; it was unable to capture its fainter dust rings, which do appear in these photos.

Neptune is missing its signature blue hue in the images, and explains why: The methane in the planet's atmosphere causes the coloration, but the Webb telescope sees Neptune in near-infrared light. "Because methane in the planet's icy clouds absorbs light strongly at these wavelengths, the planet appears fairly dark to the JWST in regions not covered by bright, high-altitude clouds." A press release goes deeper on those methane-ice clouds, pointing out they visibly appear as "bright streaks and spots" in the photos. Brightness isn't light though: Our furthest planet is so far from the sun that "high noon on Neptune is similar to a dim twilight on Earth," the release notes. (Scientists are baffled by Neptune's temperature swings.)

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