Saturn is the planet that most people associate with having spectacular rings.
But a new image of Neptune – taken by NASA’s super space telescope, James Webb – gives its rival a run.
The $ 10 billion (£ 7.4 billion) observatory has revealed the ice giant in a whole new light, having captured the sharpest view of the distant planet’s rings in more than 30 years.
Since the Voyager 2 spacecraft flew over Neptune in 1989 it hasn’t been shot in such incredible detail.
In addition to numerous bright, narrow rings, the Webb image clearly shows the faintest dust bands on the planet.
“It’s been three decades since we last saw these faint, dusty rings, and this is the first time we’ve seen them in infrared,” said Heidi Hammel, a Neptune system expert and interdisciplinary scientist for Webb.
Beyond the planet itself are seven of the giant’s 14 moons, the most significant of which is Triton. This looks almost like a star because Neptune is obscured from Webb’s point of view by the absorption of methane at infrared wavelengths.
Mesmerizing: James Webb Space Telescope Captured the Sharpest View of Neptune’s Rings in Over 30 Years
Beyond the planet itself are seven of the giant’s 14 moons, the most significant of which is Triton. This appears almost star-like (top) because Neptune is obscured in Webb’s view by the absorption of methane at infrared wavelengths.
Neptune: the most distant planet in our solar system
Dark, cold and lashed by supersonic winds, the ice giant Neptune is the eighth and most distant planet in our solar system.
More than 30 times farther from the Sun than Earth, Neptune is the only planet in our solar system not visible to the naked eye and the first predicted by mathematics before its discovery. In 2011, Neptune completed its first 165-year orbit since its discovery in 1846.
NASA’s Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft to have visited Neptune up close. It flew past in 1989 as it exited the solar system.
Triton, however, reflects on average 70% of the sunlight that hits its icy surface, so it is extremely bright.
Located 30 times farther from the Sun than Earth, Neptune orbits in the remote and dark region of the outer solar system.
Compared to the gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, it is much richer in elements heavier than hydrogen and helium.
This is easily seen in Neptune’s characteristic blue appearance in Hubble Space Telescope images at visible wavelengths, caused by small amounts of gaseous methane.
Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) frames objects in the near-infrared range of 0.6 to 5 microns, so Neptune doesn’t appear blue at the observatory.
In fact, methane gas absorbs red and infrared light so strongly that the planet is quite dark at these near-infrared wavelengths, except where high-altitude clouds are present.
Such methane-ice clouds are prominent as streaks and bright spots, which reflect sunlight before it is absorbed by the methane gas.
Images from other observatories, including the Hubble Space Telescope and the WM Keck Observatory, have recorded these rapidly changing cloud characteristics over the years.
More subtly, a thin line of brightness surrounding the planet’s equator could be a visual signature of the global atmospheric circulation that powers Neptune’s winds and storms.
The atmosphere descends and heats up at the equator, and therefore glows at infrared wavelengths more than the colder surrounding gases.
Neptune’s 164-year orbit means that its northern pole, at the top of this image, is just out of sight for astronomers, but Webb’s images suggest intriguing brightness in that area.
Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) frames objects in the near-infrared range of 0.6 to 5 microns, so Neptune doesn’t appear blue at the observatory
According to Webb, a previously known vortex at the south pole is evident, but for the first time Webb has revealed a continuous band of high-latitude clouds surrounding it.
Triton eclipses Neptune in this image because the planet’s atmosphere is obscured by the absorption of methane at these near-infrared wavelengths.
Triton orbits Neptune in an unusual backward (retrograde) orbit, leading astronomers to speculate that this moon was originally a Kuiper belt object that was gravitationally captured by Neptune.
NASA said more Webb studies on Triton and Neptune are expected in the coming year.
Webb’s infrared capabilities mean it can “see back in time” within just 100-200 million years of the Big Bang, allowing it to take photos of the very first stars to shine in the universe more than 13.5 billion years ago.
In visible light, Neptune appears blue due to the small amounts of methane gas in its atmosphere. Webb’s NIRCam instrument instead observed Neptune at near-infrared wavelengths, so Neptune doesn’t look that blue.
The $ 10 billion (£ 7.4 billion) James Webb Observatory (pictured) has revealed Neptune in a whole new light, after capturing the clearest view of the distant planet’s rings in over 30 years
The James Webb Telescope: NASA’s $ 10 billion telescope is designed to detect light from the first stars and galaxies
The James Webb telescope has been described as a “time machine” that could help unravel the secrets of our universe.
The telescope will be used to look back at the first galaxies born in the early universe more than 13.5 billion years ago and observe the sources of stars, exoplanets and even moons and planets in our solar system.
The vast telescope, which has already cost more than $ 7 billion (£ 5 billion), is considered a successor to the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope
The James Webb Telescope and most of its instruments have an operating temperature of about 40 Kelvin, about minus 387 Fahrenheit (minus 233 Celsius).
It is the largest and most powerful orbital space telescope in the world, capable of peering back 100-200 million years after the Big Bang.
The orbiting infrared observatory is designed to be about 100 times more powerful than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA likes to think of James Webb as a Hubble successor rather than a replacement, as the two will work in tandem for a while.
The Hubble telescope was launched on April 24, 1990 via the space shuttle Discovery from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
It revolves around the Earth at a speed of approximately 17,000 mph (27,300 km / h) in low Earth orbit at approximately 340 miles of altitude.