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Monday, May 27, 2024

Saturn through the lens of the Webb Telescope

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The James Webb Space Telescope has taken the first images of Saturn. The sixth planet from the Sun has been captured in infrared light where its rings appear extremely bright. Scientists hope that observations of the gas giant will lead to a better understanding of its many moons.

Saturn has the most moons of any planet in the solar system – over a hundred of them. Most of them, however, are very difficult to observe. Small celestial bodies with elongated, irregular orbits can be almost invisible to an observer from Earth. That is why NASA decided to use the “cosmic eye”.

Shiny ice

In June, the James Webb Space Telescope turned to Saturn to conduct near-infrared observations of the planet. The researchers’ goal was to test the telescope’s ability to observe the planet’s tiny moons and its bright rings. The newly discovered moons could help scientists better understand the Saturn system and its history.

In infrared, Saturn appears to be an unusually dark object – that’s because atmospheric methane absorbs almost all sunlight. The gas giant’s rings, however, are made of rock and ice, which are relatively bright at this wavelength, making them appear to sparkle. Their particles range in size from smaller than a grain of sand to as large as mountains on Earth. Three small points to Saturn’s left are its moons – from top to bottom: Dione, Enceladus, and Tethys.

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Saturn through the lens of the Webb TelescopeNASA/ESA/CSA/Matthew Tiscareno/Matthew Hedman/Maryame El Moutamid/Mark Showalter/Leigh Fletcher/Heidi Hammel/Joseph DePasquale

Summer on Saturn

The image also shows… seasons on Saturn. It was summer in the northern hemisphere at the time it was made. Scientists speculate that the particularly dark spot at the north pole is the result of a yet unknown process that occurs at the pole at certain times of the year. The slightly brighter color near the rings could be due to methane fluorescence, emission of trihydrogen cations, or both.

NASA’s Pioneer 11 missions, Voyager 1 and 2, the Cassini spacecraft and the Hubble Space Telescope have been observing the atmosphere and rings of Saturn for many decades. The first data from the Webb Telescope is just a foretaste of what we will learn about the gas giant in the future as the science team delves into the data collected.

Main photo source: NASA/ESA/CSA/Matthew Tiscareno/Matthew Hedman/Maryame El Moutamid/Mark Showalter/Leigh Fletcher/Heidi Hammel/Joseph DePasquale



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