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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

The ice giant and its secrets. The James Webb Space Telescope has photographed Uranus

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NASA has shared the latest image taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. They show the solar system’s penultimate planet, Uranus, with almost all known rings. So far, the best images of Uranus have been considered to be those taken in 1986 by the Voyager 2 space probe and the Keck Telescopes, located at the observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Uranus is the seventh planet of the solar system. It is a gas giant that takes 84 years to orbit the Sun. Its axis of rotation is tilted almost 90 degrees to its orbit. This contributes to the extreme seasons as the planet’s poles experience many years of continuous sunlight followed by the same number of years of total darkness. The latest image shows its north pole, which is currently in late spring. In 2028, summer will come there. When Voyager 2 visited Uranus in 1986, it was able to observe summer at the planet’s south pole. Now this part is on the unlit side.

Polar cap and storm activity

The image was taken by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). It was created as a result of combining two filters. Thanks to the sensitivity of the Telescope’s instruments, we can clearly see how dynamic Uranus’s atmosphere can be.

A large, bright spot can be seen to the right of the planet. This is the polar cap – a unique feature of Uranus that begins to appear during the summer when sunlight reaches the pole directly, and disappears during the fall. Webb’s telescope revealed that the center of the cap is much brighter than it appears. Photographs taken in the past also showed it, but never so clearly. Several smaller, bright spots are also clearly visible in the photo. According to the experts NASAprobably formed in connection with thunderstorm activity on the planet.

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Uranus pictured from the James Webb Space TelescopeNASA, ESA, CSA, STScI. Image processing: J. DePasquale (STScI)

11 of 13 rings

Uranus is called an ice giant because of its interior chemistry. Most of its mass is thought to be a hot, thick fluid of “ice” materials – water, methane and ammonia, with a small, rocky core at its center.

Uranus has 13 known rings and as many as 11 of them can be seen in the new image. Some of them seem so bright that they seem to merge into one larger one. Scientists call nine of them the main ones, the other two are fainter and were not detected during the Voyager flyby. Scientists hope that future images will also reveal the two outer rings that the Hubble Space Telescope detected in 2007.

The James Webb Space Telescope also captured some of Uranus’s 27 known moons, but most are too small and faint to be seen in this image. The six brightest were identified in the panoramic image.

According to NASA, this is just a foretaste of the secrets of the “seventh planet from the Sun”. In 2022, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine announced that in the decade 2023-2033 their main goal will be to cover Uranus. Several different studies are already underway, and others – also involving the use of the Webb Telescope – are already planned.

Uranus and its moons as seen by the James Webb Space TelescopeNASA, ESA, CSA, STScI. Image processing: J. DePasquale (STScI)

Main photo source: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI. Image processing: J. DePasquale (STScI)

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