NASA has released new images of Jupiter taken by the James Webb Space Telescope in August.
The Hubble Space Telescope also took images of Jupiter, but Webb reveals details Hubble couldn’t see.
Astronomers say Webb’s images give a more complete view of Jupiter’s auroras, rings and moons.
While the Hubble Space Telescope has been taking great pictures of Jupiter for decades, new images of Jupiter taken by the James Webb Space Telescope in August invite comparison. Studied side by side, Webb’s images reveal surprising new details of the gas giant that Hubble was unable to detect.
“JWST isn’t giving us anything clearer than Hubble here, but it’s giving us something different,” James O’Donoghue, a planetary scientist with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, told Insider. “I think JWST gives us an extra feel.”
Often described as the successor to Hubble, Webb launched on December 25, 2021, after more than two decades of development. Since then, the $10 billion telescope has traveled more than 1 million miles from Earth and is now in a gravitationally stable orbit, collecting infrared light and looking at objects whose light was emitted more than 13.5 billion years ago, something which Hubble cannot see. That’s because that light has been shifted into the infrared wavelengths that Webb is specifically designed to detect.
The result: Compared to Hubble, Webb offers sharper and clearer images, as well as new details of Jupiter’s auroras, storms, rings and tiny moons.
Webb captured the new images of Jupiter using the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam), which translates infrared light into colors visible to the human eye. The image of Jupiter taken by Webb, top right, was artificially colored to make certain features stand out. Red coloring highlights the planet’s stunning auroras, while light reflected from clouds appears blue. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot – a huge storm that has been swirling for centuries – is so bright in reflected sunlight that it appears white.
The Hubble Space Telescope can also spot Jupiter’s auroras when it captures ultraviolet light. In the left image above, Hubble captured visual observations of the planet’s aurora borealis in a composite.
However, Webb’s infrared image shows the auroras in greater detail, illuminating both of the planet’s poles.
Auroras are colorful displays of light that are not unique to Earth. Jupiter has the brightest auroras in the solar system, according to NASA. On both Earth and Jupiter, auroras appear when charged particles, such as protons or electrons, interact with the magnetic field – known as the magnetosphere – that surrounds a planet. Jupiter’s magnetic field is about 20,000 times stronger than Earth’s.
In his research, O’Donoghue studies Jupiter’s upper atmosphere, several thousand miles above the clouds you can see in visible images. “With JWST, we can see Jupiter’s infrared auroras in the extended upper atmosphere above the planet,” O’Donoghue said.
While Hubble can spot Jupiter’s auroras when it captures ultraviolet light, Webb’s infrared image shows the auroras in greater detail.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” O’Donoghue said, adding, “I can’t believe we got this shot from so far away. It really speaks to how efficient JWST is at picking up faint light.”
Webb’s new images of Jupiter show two of the planet’s moons, Amalthea and Adrastea. Adrastea, the smaller of the two, is just 12 miles in diameter, according to NASA. By comparison, Hubble’s image of Jupiter shows the planet’s ocean-filled moon Europa, which is 1,940 miles in diameter.
Astronomers believe that Europa’s ocean makes it a promising place to look for life in our solar system.
Webb captured images of frozen Europa that were released in July, but the new shot was taken at an angle where Europa cannot be seen. Instead, Webb’s new image of Jupiter shows two smaller, fainter moons that can be seen more clearly in the infrared. Jupiter has 79 moons, according to NASA.
“This is one of my favorite images of Jupiter of all time,” O’Donoghue said.
Webb also spotted Jupiter’s thin rings, which are made up of dust particles formed when cosmic debris smashed into four of Jupiter’s moons — including Amalthia, which is also pictured in the newly released images.
“The image of JWST is, of course, stunning,” Luke Moore, an astronomer at Boston University, told Insider. “In particular, the level of spatial detail is impressive in the infrared – due to JWST’s large primary mirror – and the contrast is incredible, as you can see the incredibly faint rings, as well as the much brighter planet.”
The fuzzy spots hidden at the bottom of the frame in Webb’s image are likely galaxies that “photograph” Webb’s image of Jupiter, according to NASA. These faint galaxies are hidden in the Hubble snapshot of Jupiter, in which the planet – and its moon Europa – are seen in an inky black expanse.
Because of Webb’s ability to collect infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye, it is able to cut through cosmic dust and see far into the past. One of the main goals of the new telescope is to find galaxies so distant that their light travels almost the entire history of the universe to reach Webb. NASA says Webb is able to look further than other telescopes, such as Hubble, capturing images of extremely faint galaxies that emitted their light in the first billion years or so after the Big Bang.
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