(CNN) The James Webb Space Telescope has captured a stunning new image of the ice giant Uranus, with almost all of 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 WM Keck Observatory at Maunakea in Hawaii.
Uranus has 13 known rings, 11 of which are visible in the new Web image. Nine rings are classified as the main rings, while the other two are more difficult 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 off NASA’s Hubble Space Telescopeand scientists hope the Web will catch them in the future.
“A planet’s ring system tells us a lot about its origin and formation,” says Dr. Naomi Rowe-Gurney, a postdoctoral researcher and Solar System Ambassador for the Webb Space Telescope at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. via e-mail.
“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 expect that future Webb images will be able to capture all 13 rings. Rowe-Gurney also expects the telescope to reveal more about 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.
“JWST gives us the opportunity to look at both Uranus and Neptune in a completely new way because we’ve never had a telescope of this size that looks in the infrared,” said Rowe-Gurney. “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 visible-light telescopes like Hubble.”
More about Uranus
Uranus is 1.8 billion miles (almost 3 billion kilometers) from our sun, and it takes 84 years for Uranus to complete one full rotation. The planet is unique in its sideways tilt, which causes its rings to appear vertically, unlike Saturn’s horizontal ring system.
Around Uranus’ north pole is a bright haze that NASA has previously reported appearing when the post is in direct sunlight during the summer. The atmospheric haze appears to be getting brighter every year, according to the space agency. With the exact mechanism behind the haze unknown, scientists are studying the polar cap using telescope images like this new Webb image.
In it original images of Voyager 2 took off Uranus, the planet had appeared as a blue ball with no features. In this new Webb image, similar to other new images from the Hubble Space Telescope, storm clouds can be seen at the edge of the polar cap. The tilt of Uranus causes extreme seasons and this stormy weather, and scientists monitors and documents the changes over time by comparing telescope images.
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope had also captured Uranus’ bright white polar cap in November, highlighting the growing brightness of the nebula when observed in comparison to images from previous years. The new Webb image shows the polar cap in more detail than the Hubble image, with subtle brightening in the center of the cap and more pronounced storm clouds that can be seen around the edges.
Uranus was identified as a priority to study in 2022 of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. “Further studies of Uranus are now underway, and more are planned during Webb’s first year of science operations,” NASA’s press release states after the announcement.
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