James Webb Telescope Reveals Unprecedented Image of Uranus and its Features
April 06, 2023
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has captured a breathtaking image of Uranus, the solar system's ice giant. This impressive image shows Uranus' dramatic rings and bright features in its atmosphere. The sensitivity of Webb's data has allowed the observatory to detect even the faintest dusty rings, a feat that has only been accomplished by two other facilities: Voyager 2 spacecraft and the Keck Observatory.
Uranus is unique among the planets in our solar system. It rotates on its side, causing extreme seasons that result in many years of constant sunlight followed by an equal number of years of complete darkness. This infrared image from Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) combines data from two filters at 1.4 and 3.0 microns, which are shown here in blue and orange, respectively. The planet displays a blue hue in the resulting representative-color image.
The polar cap on the right side of the planet is known as a unique feature of Uranus. It seems to appear when the pole enters direct sunlight in the summer and vanish in the fall; these Webb data will help scientists understand the currently mysterious mechanism. Webb revealed a surprising aspect of the polar cap: a subtle enhanced brightening at the center of the cap. The sensitivity and longer wavelengths of Webb’s NIRCam may be why we can see this enhanced Uranus polar feature when it has not been seen as clearly with other powerful telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope and Keck Observatory.
The planet Uranus has 13 known rings, and 11 of them are visible in this Webb image. Nine are classed as the main rings of the planet, and two are the fainter dusty rings. Scientists expect that future Webb images of Uranus will reveal the two faint outer rings that were discovered with Hubble during the 2007 ring-plane crossing.
Webb's image also captures many of Uranus’ 27 known moons, and the six brightest are identified in the wide-view image. This was only a short, 12-minute exposure image of Uranus with just two filters. It is just the tip of the iceberg of what Webb can do when observing this mysterious planet.
The James Webb Space Telescope is the world's premier space science observatory, and it will help scientists solve mysteries in our solar system and look beyond to distant worlds around other stars. The Uranus image is just one example of the groundbreaking science that Webb will accomplish. It is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.