The James Webb Space Telescope continues to wow astronomers and the public alike with its infrared view of deep space targets. Closer to home, the $10 billion observatory also is providing stunning views of the solar system’s ice giants, first with Neptune last year and now with Uranus.
Unique in the solar system, Uranus rotates on its side at a nearly 90-degree angle to its orbital plane, producing extreme seasons with the poles experiencing years of daylight and then darkness. The latest image of the seventh planet provides a remarkably clear view of Uranus’ rings, its sun-facing north polar cap and signs of two large storm systems.
Visible in the above late springtime view is the north polar cap, an area of brightening on the right side of the planet where its tilted rotation axis faces the sun. The cap is only visible when the pole faces direct sunlight in summer; it disappears in the fall. At the left edge of the cap, a bright storm is visible with another on the planet’s left limb.
Eleven of Uranus’ 13 known rings are visible. Two faint, dusty outer rings were spotted by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2007 during a ring plane crossing and researchers are hopeful Webb will detect them as well in future observations.
Also visible in a wider field of view: six of the planet’s 27 known moons.
“This was only a short (12-minute) exposure image of Uranus with just two filters,” according to a news release accompanying the photos. “It is just the tip of the iceberg of what Webb can do when observing this mysterious planet. Additional studies of Uranus are happening now, and more are planned in Webb’s first year of science operations.”