NASA’s Webb Space Telescope photographs Jupiter with its rings and moons

NASA has cast its most powerful infrared eye on Jupiter with a new series of images from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Orbiting the sun about 1 million miles from Earth, the new observatory proved this week that it can see more than 13 billion light-years across the universe when NASA released its first full-color images. They show countless galaxies, stars and dust clouds in the distant universe.

JWST can also image closer, more familiar objects. On Thursday, NASA released a series of new JWST images showing Jupiter in stunning detail. Next to the gas giant are its moons Europa, Thebe and Metis. Scientists believe that deep beneath its thick icy crust, Europa has a saltwater ocean that could harbor extraterrestrial life.

Even Jupiter’s thin rings are visible in some of the new images. The rings are made of dust particles thrown into space when micrometeoroids collide with nearby moons. No one knew they existed until the Voyager spacecraft passed Jupiter in 1979, looked back, and saw the rings silhouetted against the Sun.

side by side images of jupiter and its moon in different infrared wavelengths one orange with jupiter bands one bright yellow

Jupiter and its moons as seen through the short-wavelength (left) and long-wavelength (right) filters of the James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam instrument.

NASA, ESA, CSA and B Holler and J Stansberry (STScI)

Europa’s shadow appears directly to the left of Jupiter’s famous Great Red Spot, an anticyclone large enough to engulf Earth. The storm is white in this image because scientists processed the infrared data returned by the telescope.

“I couldn’t believe we saw everything so clearly and how bright they were,” said Stefanie Milam, a planetary scientist on NASA’s JWST team, in a blog post revealing the images. “It’s really exciting to think of the possibilities and possibilities that we have for observing these types of objects in our solar system.”

Side-by-side images show Jupiter in two types of infrared light with large moon Europa and thin planetary rings

Jupiter and its moons and rings imaged by JWST in the near-infrared (left) and far-infrared (right).

NASA, ESA, CSA and B Holler and J Stansberry (STScI)

JWST captured the new images using its Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) filter. The images, which clearly show the bands of Jupiter’s atmosphere, were taken with a short-wavelength filter. Others, like the image above, which shows Jupiter as a ball of bright white light, passed through a long-wavelength filter.

To ensure the telescope could find and track stars in the background of bright objects like Jupiter, NASA pointed the telescope at a distant star as Jupiter passed. This resulted in the following animation of Jupiter and Europa flying by.

gif shows jupiter and its moon europa passing through the frame

Jupiter and its moon Europa can be seen in this animation, composed of three images taken through the NIRCam instrument’s shortwave filter.

NASA, ESA, CSA and B Holler and J Stansberry (STScI)

“Combined with the recently released deep-field images, these images of Jupiter provide a full understanding of what Webb can observe, from the faintest, most distant observable galaxies to planets in our own cosmic backyard that you can see with the naked eye.” eye can see your actual backyard,” said Bryan Holler, a scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore who helped plan these observations, in a statement.

Jupiter's bright white infrared sphere with a thin ring around it and a bright moon beside it

Jupiter and some of its moons can be seen through NIRCam’s 3.23 micron filter.

NASA, ESA, CSA and B Holler and J Stansberry (STScI)

This is just the beginning of JWST, which casts its gaze across our solar system. NASA plans to have the telescope study all of the outer planets — from Mars outward — along with many of their moons. This includes Europe. In the coming years, JWST may be able to analyze light from plumes of water shooting out into space from Europa’s subsurface ocean through its icy crust. This data could give scientists insight into the composition of this ocean.

“I think that’s just one of the coolest things we can do in the solar system with this telescope,” Milam said.

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