Jupiter photos from NASA’s new space telescope are a preview of upcoming images of the solar system

After NASA dazzled the world with the first images from the powerful James Webb Space Telescope this week, NASA released even more photos from the observatory yesterday, this time images from our own solar system. The space agency revealed the telescope’s images of the planet Jupiter and an asteroid, which were used as reference targets as engineering teams calibrated the observatory’s instruments.

The images serve as a small preview of the images we should be getting of our solar system in the coming months and years. The James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, may be known for its ability to peer into some of the deepest recesses of the universe, but scientists will also use the telescope to study our own cosmic surroundings more closely.

Because these images of Jupiter were used as a guide for JWST engineers, they’re not as glossy as the sophisticated, full-color photos NASA released this week of distant nebulae and galaxies. But the images show the kind of precision we can expect from JWST’s images of the outer Solar System. Jupiter’s iconic storm feature, the Great Red Spot, is clearly visible in the photos, as is the planet’s icy moon Europa. And Jupiter’s thin rings, which are often overlooked in images of the gas giant, appear very faint.

The images prove that JWST will be able to see relatively faint objects like the rings and moons surrounding particularly bright planets in our outer solar system like Jupiter and Saturn. And that will come in handy in our ongoing search for possible signs of life near Earth. For example, scientists believe that both Europa and Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus harbor liquid oceans beneath their crust, reservoirs that may contain the right materials for life to exist. JWST could observe these moons and any icy plumes of water erupting from beneath their surfaces, according to NASA.

An animation of asteroid 6481 Tenzing being tracked by JWST
Image: NASA, ESA, CSA and B. Holler and J. Stansberry (STScI)

The photos of an asteroid released by NASA also demonstrate JWST’s ability to track fast-moving objects. Scientists want to use the observatory to track objects like asteroids, comets and more. To test this capability, the commissioning team locked on an asteroid in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and proved they could track it with JWST. Ultimately, they found that the observatory can track objects moving twice as fast as they expected. It’s “similar to photographing a crawling turtle when you’re standing a mile away,” NASA wrote in a blog post.


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