NASA has turned its powerful James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) on Uranus.
JWST’s picture shows 11 of the icy giant’s 13 rings in unprecedented detail.
The picture could shed light on the planet’s unique and mysterious polar cap, NASA said.
NASA recently released a new picture of Uranus snapped by its powerful James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
The pictures show a whole new side of the planet with the powerful space observatory capturing 11 of the icy giant’s 13 rings in unprecedented detail.
Side-by-side images show once again how much more powerful JWST is than NASA’s other space observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope, when it comes to infrared imaging.
“The Webb data demonstrates the observatory’s unprecedented sensitivity for the faintest dusty rings, which have only ever been imaged by two other facilities: the Voyager 2 spacecraft as it flew past the planet in 1986, and the Keck Observatory with advanced adaptive optics,” NASA said in a press release April 6.
JWST didn’t only snap the planet. It also took a wide look at the Uranian planetary system, including six of its brightest moons
JWST took this picture in a single 12-minute exposure. NASA hopes that by turning the telescope towards Uranus again, JWST can get even better-resolution pictures of our icy neighbor.
Uranus’s mysterious rings continue to impress
Though this picture provides a new view of the planet, this isn’t the first time scientists have taken an image of Uranus’s rings.
Voyager 2, NASA’s space probe that is still sending data back 45 years after its launch, provided insight into Uranus’s rings when it sailed past the planet in 1986.
The probe spotted two new, fainter, rings, bringing the number of know rings around the planet to 11.
These two fainter rings were only seen clearly by Voyager 2 and the Keck observatory on Earth. Hubble was unable to see these rings, though it did spot another two faint outer rings about 20 years ago, bringing the planet’s known ring number to 13.
Hubble sees ultraviolet light, visible light, and a small slice of infrared, while JWST looks at the universe across the infrared spectrum, Insider previously reported.
Webb’s much larger mirror means its pictures can provide better resolution images than Hubble’s in infrared, the spectrum of light used to take these pictures of Uranus.
NASA hopes the two fainter outer rings will be visible to JWST next time it turns its attention to Uranus.
It’s not just Uranus’s rings that are getting attention
JWST’s image also provides a good look at Uranus’s mysterious polar cap.
Uranus is a slightly bizarre planet in that it is tilted about 100 degrees with respect to its orbit around the sun, possibly the result of an Earth-sized moon smashing it off its orbit millennia ago.
That means the planet looks like it rotates sideways as it travels around the sun.
Because it takes Uranus 82 years to orbit the sun, its seasons are very long-lasting. Half of the planet is plunged into a 21-year-long winter every Uranian year.
Scientists are very interested in a unique feature that develops every Uranian summer: a polar cap that appears on the side facing the sun.
“This polar cap is unique to Uranus – it seems to appear when the pole enters direct sunlight in the summer and vanish in the fall,” NASA said in the press release, adding: “these Webb data will help scientists understand the currently mysterious mechanism.”
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