Uranian' rings seen by James Webb. Credits: NASA-ESA-CSA-STScI

A new way to see Uranus thanks to the James Webb

James Webb observed Uranus in the infrared, revealing a ring system never seen before. Let's find out more in this article

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is undoubtedly the space telescope of records! Since its arrival in the L2 orbit, it has completely revolutionized our astronomy knowledge. Its activities include observations of the solar system; this time, it was Uranus’s turn!

The Webb’s target this time was the seventh planet in the Solar System, which has been observed in astonishing detail for the first time since 1986!

Uranian' rings seen by James Webb. Credits: NASA-ESA-CSA-STScI
Uranian’ rings seen by James Webb. Credits: NASA-ESA-CSA-STScI

Using Webb’s ability to observe celestial objects in the infrared, the telescope captured the small but complex ring system of the ‘reclining giant’. The uniqueness of this image lies in the fact that no telescope or spacecraft has ever been able to photograph uranian’ rings in such detail!


Uranus: an identity card

In order of distance from the Sun, Uranus is the seventh planet in the Solar System, third in diameter and fourth in mass.

Uranus was discovered in 1781 by William Herschel, who noticed that this small bright point was moving too fast to be a normal star.

Like Neptune, Uranus is an icy giant, a planet in which the proportions of water ice, ammonia, and methane are much greater than the proportions of gases.

Contrary to popular belief, Uranus’ atmosphere is particularly complex, divided into structures of methane clouds (upper atmosphere) and water ice (deep atmosphere).

Like the other gaseous planets, Uranus has periodic seasonal cycles caused by the orbital inclination of the celestial bodies. With an inclination of up to 98°, Uranus has the most extreme seasonal cycle in the Solar System, although measuring variations in climate is rather complex as each Uranian season lasts 21 years.

Uranus and its rings. Credits: NASA
Uranus and its rings. Credits: NASA

Uranus: the “new” ring system thanks to the Webb

Although smaller than Jupiter or Saturn, Uranus has its own ring system of pulverized dark matter, which extends about 10 kilometers across.

Despite images taken by the Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1986 and by Hubble in 2005, it has been very difficult to obtain accurate and detailed data on the planet’s ring system due to the very low light reflected from the rings themselves.

The James Webb image has completely turned the tables, providing scientists with a snapshot to analyze very carefully.

Thanks to the infrared wavelengths and high sensitivity of James Webb’s cameras, scientists have been able to gather a wealth of new data about the dynamics and complexity of Uranus’s atmosphere.

The scientists behind Webb’s amazing snapshot said at the NASA image release conference that everything Webb has observed and produced is just the tip of the iceberg of what the telescope will actually be able to do during its lifetime at one and a half million kilometers from Earth.

Uranus and six of its moons seen by Webb. Credits: NASA-ESA-CSA-STScI
Uranus and six of its moons as seen by Webb. Credits: NASA-ESA-CSA-STScI


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Marco Fiaschi

Marco Fiaschi

I'm Marco, 25 years old from Gaeta, with a passion for astronomy, music and computing. I study Computer and Telecommunications Engineering and i'm the founder of 'Verso l'infinito...e oltre!'

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