Webb rings in the holidays with the ringed planet Uranus

Webb rings in the holidays with the ringed planet Uranus

Science and exploration

12/18/2023
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NASA, ESA and CSA’s James Webb Space Telescope recently turned its sights on strange and mysterious Uranus, an ice giant orbiting on its side. What Webb found was a dynamic world with rings, moons, storms and other atmospheric features, including seasonal polar caps. The image expands on a two-tone version released earlier this year, adding additional wavelength coverage for a more detailed look.

With his exquisite sensitivity, Webb captured Uranus’s dim inner and outer rings, including the elusive Zeta ring – the extremely faint, diffuse ring closest to the planet. It also photographed many of the planet’s 27 known moons, and even saw some small moons within the rings.

At visible wavelengths, Uranus appeared as a solid, calm blue ball. In infrared wavelengths (shown here), Webb reveals a strange and dynamic icy world full of exciting atmospheric features.

One of the most notable of these is the planet’s seasonal Arctic cap. Compared to a photo taken earlier this year, it’s easy to see some of the cover details in these more recent photos. These include the bright white inner cap and the dark line at the bottom of the polar cap, towards lower latitudes.

Several bright storms can also be seen near and below the southern border of the polar cap. The number, frequency, and location of these storms in Uranus’ atmosphere may be the result of a combination of seasonal and atmospheric influences.

The polar cap becomes prominent as the planet’s pole begins to point toward the Sun, approaching solstice and receiving more sunlight. Uranus reaches its next solstice in 2028, and astronomers are looking forward to monitoring any potential changes in the structure of these features. Webb will help resolve the seasonal and atmospheric influences that influence Uranus’s storms, which is crucial to helping astronomers understand the planet’s complex atmosphere.

Close-up view of Uranus (NIRCam)

Because Uranus rotates on its side at an inclination of about 98 degrees, it experiences the most extreme seasons in the solar system. For nearly a quarter of every Uranian year, the sun shines over one pole, plunging the other half of the planet into a dark winter that lasts 21 years.

Thanks to Webb’s unparalleled infrared resolution and sensitivity, astronomers now see Uranus and its unique features with stunning clarity. These details, especially regarding the nearby Zeta ring, will be invaluable in planning any future missions to Uranus, especially the proposed Uranus orbiter and probe.

Scientists want to get any visiting spacecraft as close to the planet as possible to better measure Uranus’ gravitational field and analyze the atmosphere. However, such a close approach must be carefully planned to avoid collision with any potential debris from the icy and dusty rings.

Uranus can also serve as a proxy for studying the many distant exoplanets of similar size that have been discovered in the past few decades. This “exoplanet in our backyard” could help astronomers understand how planets of this size work, what their meteorology is like, and how they formed. This, in turn, can help us understand our solar system as a whole by placing it in a larger context.

Wide-field view of Uranus (NIRCam compass image)

more information
Webb is the largest and most powerful telescope ever launched into space. Under an international cooperation agreement, ESA provided the telescope launch service using the Ariane 5 launch vehicle. Working with partners, ESA was responsible for the development and qualification of Ariane 5 modifications for the Webb mission and the purchase of the launch service by Arianespace. ESA also provided the NIRSpec spectrograph and 50% of the mid-infrared instrument MIRI, which were designed and built by a group of nationally funded European institutes (the European MIRI Consortium) in partnership with JPL and the University of Arizona.

WEB is an international partnership between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

Release esawebb.org

communication:
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media@esa.int

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