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A space telescope reveals rings of giant ice

A space telescope reveals rings of giant ice

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The ringed planet Uranus is surrounded by six of the 27 known planets. Image taken by the James Webb Space Telescope on February 6, 2023. © NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, J DePasquale (STScI)

The James Webb Space Telescope is photographing the planet Uranus – the sharp eye in space shows things no one has ever been able to see before.

BALTIMORE — After the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) captured the planet Neptune in all its glory last year, now it’s the next ice giant’s turn: Uranus. The image, released by the JWST team, shows the planet, including two tiny dust rings, which NASA says has only been imaged by two instruments so far: the Voyager 2 spacecraft, which flew by Uranus in 1986, and the Keck observatory. in Hawaii.

The 37-year-old Voyager 2 images still show Uranus as a blue-green ball with no other features — the sharp eye of the James Webb telescope, on the other hand, shows more detail. The newly released image shows the many rings around Uranus, as well as brighter features in the planet’s atmosphere.

The James Webb Space Telescope takes a detailed picture of Uranus

Among other things, you can see the polar cap at the north pole of Uranus, where researchers have noticed a mysterious phenomenon: it seems to appear whenever the pole is exposed to direct sunlight in the summer. In the fall they disappear again. JWST data should help research to decipher this phenomenon.

Ice giant Uranus was captured with its rings by the James Webb Space Telescope on February 6, 2023.
The icy planet Uranus with its rings was captured by the James Webb Space Telescope on February 6, 2023. © NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, J. DePasquale (STScI)

Two clouds can be seen in the photo. Research hypothesizes that they are related to storms on the ice giant. In addition to the planet itself, eleven of its thirteen rings can also be seen in the image. Some of the rings appear so bright and so close together that they seem to overlap into one large ring. Uranus has nine major rings, two of the visible rings are minute dust rings that were first detected by the Voyager 2 flyby in 1986.

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Uranus has a total of 27 known moons, six of which (Ariel, Bec, Miranda, Umbriel, Titania and Oberon) can be seen in the planet’s wide field of view.

Strange ice giant Uranus in this JWST image

Uranus is a unique planet in the solar system: it rotates on its side – at about 90 degrees to the plane of its orbit. This creates extreme seasons on the ice giant: each pole of the planet is in continuous sunlight for several years, followed by an equal number of years in complete darkness. In total, it takes Uranus 84 years to revolve around the Sun once. The current time in late spring at the north pole of Uranus is shown in the image. In 2028, it will be summer there – while it’s always dark at the planet’s south pole.

In a statement accompanying the Uranus image, NASA said the image was just a 12-minute exposure of the planet, using only two filters. “It’s just the tip of the iceberg of what Webb can do when observing this mysterious planet,” she said.

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Astronomy wants a research mission for the planet Uranus

In fact, it can be assumed that the US space agency NASA will observe Uranus more often – after all, the planet ranks high on experts’ “astronomy wish list”. It should visit Uranus with its own space mission in the coming years, according to the researchers’ unanimous wish. No wonder: Uranus seems to have some mysteries, as a research team recently discovered. (unpaid bill)