For the past few weeks, the Webb Space Telescope has been giving us breathtaking views of the distant universe. But in the latest photos, Webb focuses on wonders much closer to home: Jupiter, with its delicate rings, gargantuan auroras and monstrous storms.
We’re used to seeing Jupiter in warm colors, but in these recently released images, it appears pale and ghostly. Webb’s NIRCam instrument photographed Jupiter in infrared light, which human eyes cannot see, so the researchers mapped each infrared wavelength to a corresponding visible color. Longer wavelengths result in shades of red, while shorter ones convert to blues. In this close-up view of the gas giant, the auroras are red flames.
Jupiter’s auroras are huge versions of the phenomenon that creates both the northern and southern lights here on Earth. When a solar storm hits a planet, streams of electrons bombard the planet’s atmosphere, energizing the molecules there. These molecules release this extra energy as light, creating dancing streamers of light across the sky. Jupiter’s version could swallow up our entire planet.
Under the immense glow of Jupiter’s aurorae, the upper atmosphere around Jupiter’s poles is hazy, reflecting light in wavelengths that result in greens and yellows in the composite image. Other clouds, deeper in the planet’s atmosphere, appear in shades of blue. And the iconic Great Red Spot, a gargantuan storm just south of Jupiter’s equator, reflects sunlight so brilliantly it glows white.
The image you see is actually a composite of several images taken with NIRCam, using the instrument’s three infrared filters to focus on different wavelengths of light.
“Scientists collaborated with citizen scientist Judy Schmidt to translate the Webb data into images,” ESA said in a statement.
Webb’s image processing team combined another set of NIRCam images, using just two of the instrument’s filters, into a wider view of Jupiter, its nearly invisible rings and two of its smaller inner moons.
In the image, you can see the faint, delicate lines of Jupiter’s rings extending to either side of the planet. Imaging Jupiter’s rings is no small feat; they are made of tiny particles that do not reflect sunlight much; as a result, the rings are about a million times fainter than the light reflected from the gas giant itself.
Planetary scientist Imke de Pater and her colleagues plan to study Jupiter’s rings in more detail. In particular, they want to understand where the dust that forms the rings actually comes from; these are probably small moons orbiting close to Jupiter. Some of the dust may also come from moons like Adrastea, which appears as a bright spot to the far left of the rings in Webb’s wide-field image. Still farther left, a brighter point of light is the moon Amalthea, an oddly shaped ball of ice and reddish minerals.
Jupiter’s auroras glow brightly white at the poles in the widefield image, and the Great Red Spot is another blazing swirl of white light against the darker gray of the rest of the gas giant’s upper cloud layers.
But Webb can’t help but stare to the edge of the universe. According to the ESA, “the blurry spots in the lower background are likely galaxies ‘photobombing’ this Jovian view.”