James Webb’s image captures the clearest view of Neptune’s rings in 30 years

Saturn is the planet that most people associate with spectacular rings.

But a new image of Neptune – taken by NasaJames Webb’s super space telescope – gives its rival a hard time.

The $10billion (£7.4billion) observatory has revealed the icy giant in a whole new light, having captured the clearest view of the distant planet’s rings in more than 30 years.

Not since the Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by Neptune in 1989 has it been photographed in such incredible detail.

Along with several bright, narrow rings, the Webb image clearly shows the planet’s fainter dust lanes.

“It’s been three decades since we’ve seen these faint, dusty rings, and this is the first time we’ve seen them in the infrared,” said Heidi Hammel, Neptune system expert and interdisciplinary scientist for Webb.

Beyond the planet itself are seven of the giant’s 14 moons, the largest of which is Triton. It almost looks like a star because Neptune is darkened in Webb’s view by the absorption of methane at infrared wavelengths.

Mesmerizing: The James Webb Space Telescope has captured the clearest view of Neptune’s rings in over 30 years

Beyond the planet itself are seven of the giant's 14 moons, the largest of which is Triton.  It almost looks like a star (top) as Neptune is darkened in Webb's view by the absorption of methane at infrared wavelengths

Beyond the planet itself are seven of the giant’s 14 moons, the largest of which is Triton. It almost looks like a star (top) as Neptune is darkened in Webb’s view by the absorption of methane at infrared wavelengths

Neptune: The furthest planet in our solar system

Dark, cold and whipped by supersonic winds, the ice giant Neptune is the eighth most distant planet in our solar system.

More than 30 times further from the Sun than Earth, Neptune is the only planet in our solar system not visible to the naked eye and the first predicted by mathematics before its discovery. In 2011, Neptune completed its first 165-year orbit since its discovery in 1846.

NASA’s Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft to have visited Neptune up close. It passed in 1989 as it exited the solar system.

Source: NASA

Triton, however, reflects an average of 70% of the sunlight that hits its icy surface, so it appears extremely bright.

Located 30 times farther from the sun than Earth, Neptune orbits in the dark and distant region of the outer solar system.

Compared to the gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, it is much richer in heavier elements than hydrogen and helium.

This is evident in Neptune’s characteristic blue appearance in Hubble Space Telescope images at visible wavelengths, caused by small amounts of methane gas.

Webb’s Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) images objects in the near infrared range of 0.6 to 5 microns, so Neptune does not appear blue to the observatory.

In fact, methane gas absorbs red and infrared light so strongly that the planet is quite dark at those near-infrared wavelengths except where high-altitude clouds are present.

These clouds of methane and ice are prominent as bright streaks and spots, which reflect sunlight before it is absorbed by the methane gas.

Images from other observatories, including the Hubble Space Telescope and the WM Keck Observatory, have recorded these rapidly changing cloud features over the years.

More subtly, a thin line of brightness circling the planet’s equator could be a visual signature of the global atmospheric circulation that powers Neptune’s winds and storms.

The atmosphere sinks and warms at the equator, and therefore glows more at infrared wavelengths than the cooler surrounding gases.

Neptune’s 164-year orbit means its north pole, at the top of this image, is just out of sight for astronomers, but the Webb images suggest intriguing brightness in this area.

Webb's Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) images objects in the near infrared range of 0.6 to 5 microns, so Neptune does not appear blue to the observatory

Webb’s Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) images objects in the near infrared range of 0.6 to 5 microns, so Neptune does not appear blue to the observatory

A previously known vortex at the south pole is evident in Webb’s view, but for the first time Webb revealed a continuous band of high latitude clouds surrounding it.

Triton eclipses Neptune in this image because the planet’s atmosphere is darkened by the absorption of methane at these near-infrared wavelengths.

Triton orbits Neptune in an unusual backward (retrograde) orbit, leading astronomers to speculate that this moon was originally a Kuiper Belt object that was gravitationally captured by Neptune.

NASA said additional Webb studies of Triton and Neptune are planned for the coming year.

Webb’s infrared abilities mean he can ‘see through time’ just 100-200 million years from the Big Bang, allowing him to snap photos of the very first stars to shine in the universe there. more than 13.5 billion years old.

In visible light, Neptune appears blue due to small amounts of methane in its atmosphere.  Webb's NIRCam instrument observed Neptune at near-infrared wavelengths instead, so Neptune doesn't look so blue

In visible light, Neptune appears blue due to small amounts of methane in its atmosphere. Webb’s NIRCam instrument observed Neptune at near-infrared wavelengths instead, so Neptune doesn’t look so blue

The $10billion (£7.4billion) James Webb Observatory (pictured) has revealed Neptune in a whole new light, after capturing the clearest view of the distant planet's rings in more than 30 years

The $10billion (£7.4billion) James Webb Observatory (pictured) has revealed Neptune in a whole new light, after capturing the clearest view of the distant planet’s rings in more than 30 years

James Webb Telescope: NASA’s $10 billion telescope designed to detect light from early stars and galaxies

The James Webb Telescope has been described as a “time machine” that could help unlock the secrets of our universe.

The telescope will be used to observe the first galaxies born in the early universe more than 13.5 billion years ago, and observe the sources of stars, exoplanets and even moons and planets in our solar system.

The vast telescope, which has already cost more than $7bn (£5bn), is seen as the successor to the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope

The James Webb Telescope and most of its instruments have an operating temperature of around 40 Kelvin – about minus 387 Fahrenheit (minus 233 Celsius).

It is the largest and most powerful orbiting space telescope in the world, capable of observing 100 to 200 million years after the Big Bang.

The orbiting infrared observatory is designed to be about 100 times more powerful than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope.

NASA likes to think of James Webb as a successor to Hubble rather than a replacement, as the two will be working in tandem for some time.

The Hubble Telescope was launched on April 24, 1990 via Space Shuttle Discovery from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

It circles the Earth at a speed of approximately 17,000 mph (27,300 km/h) in low Earth orbit at an altitude of approximately 340 miles.