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Webb Space Telescope Provides an Extraordinary View of the Planet Neptune

Peter Lobner

In April 2021, I posted a short article entitled, “Multi-messenger Astronomy Provides Extraordinary Views of Uranus,” which included two composite views of Uranus, created by combining near-infrared images taken by the Keck-1 telescope at an elevation of 4,145 meters (13,599 ft) on Maunakea, Hawaii, with X-ray images taken with the Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer (ACIS) aboard the orbiting Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

Now, the Webb Space Telescope has taken stunning near-infrared images of the next, and outermost, planet in our solar system, Neptune (sorry, Pluto). You can read NASA’s 21 September 2022 news release on these images here: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2022/new-webb-image-captures-clearest-view-of-neptune-s-rings-in-decades

The Webb images of Neptune, taken on July 12, 2022, are reproduced below.

NASA: “Webb captured seven of Neptune’s 14 known moons: Galatea, Naiad, Thalassa, Despina, Proteus, Larissa, and Triton. Neptune’s large and unusual moon, Triton, dominates this Webb portrait of Neptune as a very bright point of light sporting the signature diffraction spikes seen in many of Webb’s images.”
NASA: “…image of Neptune……brings the planet’s rings into full focus for the first time in more than three decades. The most prominent features of Neptune’s atmosphere in this image are a series of bright patches in the planet’s southern hemisphere that represent high-altitude methane-ice clouds. More subtly, a thin line of brightness circling the planet’s equator could be a visual signature of global atmospheric circulation that powers Neptune’s winds and storms. Additionally, for the first time, Webb has teased out a continuous band of high-latitude clouds surrounding a previously-known vortex at Neptune’s southern pole.” Source: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) has created a Resource Gallery of Webb Space Telescope images, which you can browse here: https://webbtelescope.org/resource-gallery/images. Currently there are 280 images in the Webb Resource Gallery.  I think this is a website worth revisiting from time to time.

NASA’s Solar System Exploration website provides views of Neptune from several earlier sources, including the 1989 Voyager 2 deep space probe, the Hubble Space Telescope and the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT). Check it out here: https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/neptune/galleries/

2018: The following image was taken in July 2018 during the testing of the narrow-field, adaptive optics mode of the optical/infrared MUSE/GALACSI instrument on ESO’s VLT, which is located at an elevation of 2,635 m (8,645 ft) at Cerro Paranal, in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile.

2018 VLT image of Neptune. The corrected image is sharper than a comparable image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Source: ESO/P. Weilbacher (AIP)

1994: The more recent Webb Space Telescope and VLT images are much better than the Hubble Space Telescope optical-range images of Neptune taken more than two decades earlier, in 1994.

NASA: “The images were taken in 1994 on October 10 (upper left), October 18 (upper right), and November 2 (lower center). Hubble is allowing astronomers to study Neptune’s dynamic atmosphere with a level of detail not possible since the 1989 flyby of the Voyager 2 space probe. Building on Voyager’s initial discoveries, Hubble is revealing that Neptune has a remarkably dynamic atmosphere that changes over just a few days. The temperature difference between Neptune’s strong internal heat source and its frigid cloud tops (-260 degrees Fahrenheit) might trigger instabilities in the atmosphere that drive these large-scale weather changes. In addition to hydrogen and helium, the main constituents, Neptune’s atmosphere is composed of methane and hydrocarbons, like ethane and acetylene.” Source: NASA, JPL, STScI

1989: In October 1989, the following whole planet view of Neptune was produced using images taken through the green and orange filters on the narrow angle camera during the Voyager 2 spacecraft flyby of the planet.

NASA: “This picture of Neptune was taken by Voyager 2 less than five days before the probe’s closest approach of the planet on Aug. 25, 1989. The picture shows the “Great Dark Spot” — a storm in Neptune’s atmosphere — and the bright, light-blue smudge of clouds that accompanies the storm”. 
Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech (1989)

In the future, we can hopefully look forward to more detailed multi-messenger images of Neptune, combining the near-infrared images from Webb with images from other observatories that can view the planet in different spectral bands.

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