May 25, 2024

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Images of Uranus show how NASA’s James Webb telescope outperforms the Hubble

Images of Uranus show how NASA’s James Webb telescope outperforms the Hubble

Images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope (left) and JWST (right) of Uranus in 2022 and 2023, respectively. The rings of Uranus can be seen in much greater detail by the JWST.
NASA, ESA, STScI, Amy Simon (NASA-GSFC), Michael H. Wong (UC Berkeley), NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI. Image processing: J. DePasquale (STScI), Insider

  • NASA has turned its powerful James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) at Uranus.
  • This JWST image shows 11 of the ice giant’s 13 rings in unprecedented detail.
  • NASA said the image could shed light on the planet’s unique and mysterious polar cap.

NASA recently released a new image of Uranus taken by the powerful James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Images show a whole new side of the planet with the powerful space observatory capturing 11 of the ice giant’s 13 rings in unprecedented detail.

The side-by-side images again show just how much more powerful JWST is than NASA’s other space observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope, when it comes to infrared imaging.

Webb’s data demonstrate the observatory’s unprecedented sensitivity to the faintest dusty rings, which had only been imaged by only two other facilities: the Voyager 2 spacecraft when it flew over the planet in 1986, and the Keck Observatory with Advanced Adaptive Optics, NASA. He said In a press release April 6.

Annotated image of Uranus’ polar cap.
NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI. Image processing: J. DePasquale (STScI), Insider

JWST didn’t just take over the planet. It also took a broad look at the planetary system of Uranus, including six of its brightest moons

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An infrared image shows the planet’s constellation Uranus, including six of its 27 known moons
NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI. Image processing: J. DePasquale (STScI)

JWST captured this image with a single 12-minute exposure. NASA hopes that by pointing the telescope at Uranus again, JWST can get better-resolution images of our icy neighbor.

The mysterious rings of Uranus continue to impress

Although this image provides a new view of the planet, this isn’t the first time scientists have taken a picture of Uranus’ rings.

The Voyager 2 space probe, the NASA space probe still sending back data 45 years after its launch, provided insight into Uranus’ rings when it sailed past the planet in 1986.

Image of Uranus’ rings, backlit by the Sun. Taken by Voyager 2 in 1986.
NASA

The probe discovered two new, fainter rings, bringing the number of known rings around the planet to 11.

These two faint rings have only been seen clearly by Voyager 2 and the Keck Observatory on Earth. Hubble has never been able to see these rings, although it did detect two more faint outer rings about 20 years ago, which brought the planet’s known ring number to 13.

The rings as observed by Hubble in 2007-2008
NASA, European Space Agency, and M. Showalter (SETI Institute)

Hubble sees ultraviolet light, visible light, and a small slice of infrared, while the JWST looks out at the universe across the infrared spectrum, Insider previously reported.

Webb’s larger mirror means its images can provide better-resolution images than Hubble’s in the infrared, which is the spectrum of light used to take these images of Uranus.

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Since its launch on December 25, 2021, it has offered some stunning views of the universe.

NASA hopes that the two faint outer rings will be visible to JWST the next time it turns its attention to Uranus.

It’s not just Uranus’ rings that are getting attention

The JWST image also provides a good look at Uranus’ mysterious polar cap.

Uranus is a bit of an odd planet in that it is tilted about 100 degrees relative to its orbit around the sun, possibly the result of an Earth-sized moon being smashed out of its orbit thousands of years ago.

This means that the planet appears to rotate sideways as it orbits the sun.

Since Uranus takes 82 years to revolve around the sun, its seasons are long-lasting. Half the planet plunges into a 21-year winter every Oran year.

Scientists are most interested in a unique feature that develops each summer on Uran: a polar cap that appears on the side facing the sun.

“This polar cap is unique to Uranus — it appears to appear when the pole enters direct sunlight in the summer and disappears in the fall,” NASA said in a press release, adding, “This Webb data will help scientists understand the currently mysterious mechanism.”