James Webb takes mesmerising images of Neptune

In anticipation of the second anniversary of its launch, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has presented a captivating image of Uranus, a product of collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). This recent snapshot, taken through the telescope’s infrared filters, showcases the icy planet in a luminous hue of blue, akin to a radiant marble set against the backdrop of a dark cosmic ocean, capturing wavelengths imperceptible to the human eye.

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Contrasting with the relatively nondescript images of Uranus from the Voyager 2 mission in the 1980s, the JWST’s infrared sensors unveil a vibrant portrayal of this “strange and dynamic ice world” with intricate atmospheric features.

The image highlights Uranus’ encircling rings, including the elusive Zeta ring, its innermost and faintest. Additionally, the north polar cloud cap is discernible as a prominent white feature near the centre of the photograph.

A total of 14 of Uranus’ 27 moons are identified in the image, each labelled with their respective names, many inspired by Shakespearean characters. Notable moons captured include Oberon, Titania, Umbriel, Juliet, Perdita, Rosalind, Puck, Belinda, Desdemona, Cressida, Ariel, Miranda, Bianca, and Portia.

Using four NIRCam filters—F140M (blue), F210M (cyan), F300M (yellow), and F460M (orange)—the JWST provides a detailed view in the near-infrared spectrum. This surpasses a previous image from earlier this year, which utilized only two filters, resulting in a less intricate representation of the distant icy giant.

Uranus, recognized for its substantial icy composition, spins on its side at an angle of about 98 degrees, subjecting one hemisphere to prolonged darkness and extreme cold during a quarter of its year. Given that a Uranian year lasts approximately 84 Earth years, this translates to a lengthy 21-year winter on the planet’s dark side.

Astronomers anticipate that the JWST’s imagery will enhance our understanding of Uranus, particularly the Zeta ring, offering insights for future space missions. Moreover, these images serve as proxies for comprehending the myriad exoplanets documented in other solar systems, sharing characteristics with our ringed and frigid celestial neighbour.