NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has sent back its first image of Neptune and it’s the clearest view of the ice giant in more than 30 years.

Webb’s image managed to reveal the distant planet’s delicate rings.

The last time astronomers had such a clear view of the farthest planet from the sun was when NASA’s Voyager 2 became the first and only space probe to fly past the ice giant for just a few hours in 1989.

Now Webb’s unprecedented infrared imaging capabilities has provided a new glimpse into Neptune’s atmosphere, said Mark McCaughrean, a senior advisor for science and exploration at the European Space Agency.

The telescope “takes all that glare and background away” so that “we can start to tease out the atmospheric composition” of the planet, McCaughrean, who has worked on the Webb project for more than 20 years, told AFP.

Neptune appears as deep blue in previous images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope due to methane in its atmosphere. However, the near-infrared wavelengths captured by Webb’s primary imager NIRCam shows the planet as a greyish white, with icy clouds streaking the surface.

“The rings are more reflective in the infrared,” McCaughrean said, “so they’re much easier to see.”

The image also shows an “intriguing brightness” near the top of Neptune, NASA said in a statement. Because the planet is tilted away from Earth and takes 164 years to orbit the Sun, astronomers have not yet had a good look at its north pole.

Webb also spotted seven of Neptune’s 14 known moons.

Author