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The James Webb Space Telescope has captured a new stunning image of ice giant Uranus, with almost all its faint dusty rings on display.
The image is representative of the telescope’s significant sensitivity, NASA said, as the fainter rings have only been captured previously by the Voyager 2 spacecraft and the W.M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea in Hawaii.
Uranus has 13 known rings, with 11 of them visible in the new Webb image. Nine rings are classified as the main rings, while the other two are harder to capture due to their dusty makeup and were not discovered until the Voyager 2 mission’s flyby in 1986. Two other, faint outer rings not shown in this latest image were discovered in 2007 from images taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, and scientists hope Webb will capture them in the future.
“The ring system of a planet tells us a lot about its origins and formation,” said Dr. Naomi Rowe-Gurney, a postdoctoral research scientist and solar system ambassador for the Webb space telescope at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, via email.
“Uranus is such a strange world with its sideways tilt and lack of internal heat that any clues we can get about its history are very valuable.”
Scientists anticipate that future Webb images will be able to capture all 13 rings. Rowe-Gurney also expects the telescope to uncover more on Uranus’ atmospheric composition, helping scientists better understand this unusual gas giant.
The space observatory’s powerful Near-Infrared Camera, or NIRCam, can detect infrared light otherwise not visible to astronomers.
“The JWST gives us the ability to look at both Uranus and Neptune in a completely new way because we have never had a telescope of this size that looks in the infrared,” Rowe-Gurney said. “The infrared can show us new depths and features that are difficult to see from the ground with the atmosphere in the way and invisible to telescopes that look in visible light like Hubble.”
Located 1.8 billion miles (nearly 3 billion kilometers) away from our sun, Uranus takes 84 years to complete a full rotation. The planet is unique in its tilt to its side, causing its rings to be displayed vertically, unlike Saturn’s horizontal ring system.
Surrounding Uranus’ north pole is a bright haze that NASA has previously reported as appearing when the pole is in direct sunlight during the summer. The atmospheric haze seems to get brighter each year, according to the space agency. With the exact mechanism behind the haze unknown, scientists are studying the polar cap using telescope images such as this new Webb image.
In the original images Voyager 2 took of Uranus, the planet had appeared as a blue ball with no features. In this new Webb image, similar to other recent images by the Hubble Space Telescope, storm clouds can be seen at the edge of the polar cap. Uranus’ tilt causes extreme seasons and this stormy weather, and scientists are monitoring and documenting the changes over time by comparing telescope images.
The NASA Hubble Space Telescope had also captured Uranus’ bright white polar cap in November, illuminating the growing brightness of the haze when observed in comparison with images from prior years. The new Webb image depicts the polar cap in greater detail than what is shown in the Hubble image, with a subtle brightening in the cap’s center and more pronounced storm clouds that can be seen around the edges.
Uranus was identified as a priority to study in 2022 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. “Additional studies of Uranus are happening now, and more are planned in Webb’s first year of science operations,” NASA’s release said following the announcement.