NASA's James Webb Space Telescope just snapped the clearest image of Neptune's rings in 33 years

In this image by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), a smattering of hundreds of background galaxies, varying in size and shape, appear alongside the Neptune system.
The James Webb Space Telescope's Near-Infrared Camera captures hundreds of background galaxies alongside the Neptune system.NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

New images from NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, released Wednesday, show the clearest views of Neptune and its hard-to-see rings in decades.

It's the best view of the planet's dusty rings since the Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by Neptune in 1989, on its way out of the solar system, according to Heidi Hammel, an interdisciplinary scientist who works on the Webb telescope.

"This is the first time we've seen them in the infrared," Hammel said.

On the left, a picture of Neptune's rings taken by Voyager 2 in 1989. On the right, a picture of Neptune's rings taken in infrared by Webb.
Neptune's rings taken by Voyager 2 in 1989, left. Neptune's rings taken in infrared by the James Webb Space Telescope, right.NASA/JPL/ESA/STScI

The fresh snapshots show faint dusty rings around the planet that even Voyager 2's 1989 flyby couldn't capture.

On the left is a composite of two images of Neptune's rings taken by Voyager 2. The planet's body is covered so the probe could gather more light from the icy giant's faint rings.

"Wow, I am in awe of those rings!" Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, wrote about Webb's Neptune images on Twitter Wednesday.

Webb's new images show Neptune's bright methane-ice clouds reflecting sunlight, as well as a smattering of galaxies against an inky black expanse.

Neptune often appears bright blue in images due to the presence of methane in its atmosphere, such as in the image below, taken by Hubble Space Telescope, which relies on visible light wavelengths.

In this Hubble image of Neptune, taken in 2021, the planet appears blue due to its methane-rich atmosphere.
In this Hubble image of Neptune, taken in 2021, the planet appears blue due to its methane-rich atmosphere.NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), and M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley) and the OPAL team.

But because Webb picks up infrared light, Neptune does not appear blue. Instead it shows up as a ghostly white planet. That's because methane absorbs reddish and infrared light.

"In fact, the methane gas (in Neptune's atmosphere) so strongly absorbs red and infrared light that the planet is quite dark at these near-infrared wavelengths, except where high-altitude clouds are present," according to a NASA statement.

The planet's high-altitude methane ice clouds appear as brilliant, bright features since they reflect sunlight before it's absorbed by methane, according to NASA.

"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," NASA added.

Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) image of Neptune and its rings. Neptune has 14 known satellites, and seven of them are visible in this image.
The James Webb Space Telescope's Near-Infrared Camera image of Neptune and its rings. Neptune has 14 known satellites, seven of which are visible in this image.NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

In the above image, seven of Neptune's 14 known moons can be spotted, including Galatea, Naiad, Thalassa, Despina, Larissa, and Proteus. The bright blue feature that looks like a star is actually Neptune's largest moon, Triton, which outshines Neptune because it reflects more sunlight than the planet and its atmosphere.

Often described as the successor to Hubble, Webb launched on December 25, 2021, after more than two decades of development. Since that time, the $10 billion telescope has traveled more than 1 million miles from Earth and is now stationed in a gravitationally stable orbit, collecting infrared light. By gathering infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye, Webb is able to cut through cosmic dust and see far into the past, to the first 400 million years after the Big Bang.

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