The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has captured its first, raw images of Saturn that show the planet’s famous rings in stunning, new detail.
The striking images show Saturn’s mysterious rings glowing luminously against the inky backdrop of space.
The James Webb Space Telescope spent over two and a half hours observing the planet this weekend. The photographs of Saturn were taken using the telescope’s Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) camera instrument which captures the planet through a series of different filters.
These camera filters keep out particular wavelengths of light so that the images can highlight particular features of the planet and dim others. These filters allowed Saturn’s magnificent rings to be captured in breathtaking detail.
Although the final, processed photographs of Saturn are not yet available, the raw images of Saturn have been published on the unofficial James Webb Space Telescope Feed website.
Saturn’s Rings Revealed in New Detail
In the first image, Saturn is almost imperceptible. However, the planet’s rings shine strikingly bright against the pitch-black surroundings of space.
According to the IFLScience, the F323N filter — which excludes light longer than 3.3 microns and shorter than 3.2 microns — was used in this photo.
Methane absorbs radiation in the narrow band between, making the gas planet look dark when this filter is used. The rings, on the other hand, reflect this radiation brightly, allowing them to glow and dominate the image. Meanwhile, Saturn appears as dark as the space behind it.
In the image above, which used a F212N filter, Saturn’s rings glow luminously. But the planet itself and its bands are far more visible and its bands are clear too.
Saturn has a banded appearance in its coloration due to high winds in the atmosphere. The bands are not as distinct as those on Jupiter, however, they are very wide at the equator and easy to detect.
In the image above, Saturn and its rings are aglow as a huge, gleaming ball of light against the various moons and stars in space.
Saturn’s Disappearing Rings
Galileo Galilei first discovered Saturn’s mysterious rings in the first telescopic observations of the planet in the early 1600s. Since then, Saturn and its iconic rings have fascinated astrophotographers.
However, research by NASA revealed that Saturn’s rings, which are made up of large chunks of ice, are falling in on the planet as icy rain due to the planet’s intense gravity.
As a result, Saturn’s rings are disappearing and will eventually vanish from sight. The James Webb Space Telescope may be able to reveal how much time they have left.
“We’re still trying to figure out exactly how fast they are eroding,” James O’Donoghue, a planetary scientist at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency who will lead the new effort to pin down how long Saturn’s rings will last, explains in a statement published in April.
“Currently, research suggests the rings will only be part of Saturn for another few hundred million years.”
Image credits: All photos by The James Webb Space Telescope Feed.