The latest triumph by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) comes from a remarkable new image of Uranus. This enigmatic ice giant orbits at a distance of nearly 1.8 billion miles (three billion kilometers) from our sun. The new picture shows in detail and beauty the normally faint rings surrounding the planet, invisible to most telescopes. The photo comes on the heels of JWST’s unprecedentedly clear picture of Neptune in 2022.
The JWST’s unparalleled sensitivity allowed it to capture almost all of Uranus’s dim rings, providing a remarkable new view of the gas giant. Previously, only Voyager 2 and the W.M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea in Hawaii had captured the fainter rings.
Uranus boasts 13 rings, with eleven visible in the latest image, nine of which are classified as the main rings. The other two are dustier and were discovered only during the Voyager 2 mission’s flyby in 1986. Two additional, faint outer rings were discovered in 2007 using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, but they are not visible in the new image.
NASA is hopeful that future images from the JWST will capture all 13 rings, unlocking new insights into the structure and composition of this ice giant. Scientists anticipate that the telescope will also uncover more information about Uranus’s atmospheric composition, helping them better understand this unusual gas giant.
The telescope’s Near-Infrared Camera, or NIRCam, is a powerful tool that can detect infrared light beyond what is visible to astronomers, allowing for an even deeper exploration of Uranus’s mysteries. The planet’s unique tilt causes its rings to be displayed vertically, in contrast to Saturn’s horizontal ring system.
Uranus takes 84 years to complete a full rotation around the Sun, and its tilt causes extreme seasons and stormy weather patterns that are being studied in greater detail thanks to the new image.
The bright haze surrounding Uranus’s north pole is also particularly interesting to scientists, who have observed it growing brighter every year. NASA has previously reported that the haze appears when the pole is in direct sunlight during the summer, but the exact mechanism behind this phenomenon remains unknown.
The new Webb image depicts the polar cap in greater detail than the Hubble image, with a subtle brightening at the cap’s center and more pronounced storm clouds visible around the edges.
The JWST has already proved invaluable in the quest to understand the mysteries of the universe. Its remarkable sensitivity and advanced imaging capabilities keep allowing us to glimpse the furthest reaches of space and unlock new insights into our cosmic surroundings.