James Webb Telescope Snaps Stunning View of Jupiter

In the aftermath of the historic release of the first images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, data from its start-up period has now been released bit-by-bit. Before science operations began officially on July 12, the telescope’s instruments were tested by capturing images of Jupiter and spectra of various asteroids.

As a result of Webb’s tracking of solar system targets, images and spectra produced by this satellite are unprecedented in detail. These images of Jupiter seen through Webb’s infrared lenses will be familiar to Jupiter fans.

As seen through NIRCam’s short-wavelength filter, the planet is surrounded by distinct bands, and the Great Red Spot is visible. However, as a result of how Webb’s infrared image was processed, the iconic dot appears white.

According to Bryan Holler, a scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore who helped plan these observations, these images of Jupiter show the extent of what Webb is capable of observing, “from the faintest, most distant galaxies to the planets in our own cosmic backyard that you can see from your backyard,” Holler said.

NIRCam's 3.23 micron filter shows Jupiter and some of its moons. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and B. Holler and J. Stansberry (STScI).
NIRCam’s 3.23-micron filter shows Jupiter and some of its moons. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and B. Holler and J. Stansberry (STScI).

Europa is visible at the left of the image, a moon with an ocean beneath its thick icy crust that NASA hopes to explore with the Europa Clipper mission in the near future. Europa’s shadow can also be seen to the left of the Great Red Spot. Thebe and Metis are also visible in these images.

“I couldn’t believe that we saw everything so clearly, and how bright they were,” said Stefanie Milam, Webb’s deputy project scientist for planetary science based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

“It’s really exciting to think of the capability and opportunity we have for observing these objects in our solar system.”

These images are significant because they prove that Webb can observe satellites and rings near bright solar system objects, including Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. Researchers will use Webb to investigate whether plumes of material can be seen spewing out of moons like Europa or Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Observations by Webb may detect material deposited by plumes on Europa’s surface.

Jupiter, center, and its moon Europa, left, are viewed through the 2.12 micron NIRCam filter on the James Webb Space Telescope. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and B. Holler and J. Stansberry (STScI).
Jupiter, center, and its moon Europa, left, are viewed through the 2.12 micron NIRCam filter on the James Webb Space Telescope. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and B. Holler and J. Stansberry (STScI).

“I think that’s just one of the coolest things that we’ll be able to do with this telescope in the solar system,” Milam said.

The NIRcam long-wavelength filter image of Jupiter clearly shows the gas giant’s rings. It is “absolutely astonishing” that the rings appeared in Webb’s first solar system image.

“The Jupiter images in the narrow-band filters were designed to provide nice images of the entire disk of the planet, but the wealth of additional information about very faint objects (Metis, Thebe, the main ring, hazes) in those images with approximately one-minute exposures was absolutely a very pleasant surprise,” said John Stansberry, observatory scientist, and NIRCam commissioning lead at the Space Telescope Science Institute.

A photograph of Jupiter using two different filters, taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. Image Credit: (NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI).
A photograph of Jupiter using two different filters taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. Image Credit: (NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI).

Webb also conducted a total of three separate observations to capture images of Jupiter and Europa as they moved across the telescope’s field of view. As a result of this test, the observatory demonstrated its ability to locate and track guide stars near Jupiter.

But just how fast can Webb track a moving object? The study of asteroids and comets led to this question. To test the “speed limit” of moving-target tracking during commissioning, Webb used an asteroid called 6481 Tenzing, situated in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Mars travels at a maximum speed of 30 milliarcseconds per second, so Webb was designed to track objects moving at that speed. The Webb team observed various asteroids during commissioning, which appeared as dots due to their size.

With all of the science instruments, Webb will still be able to collect valuable data for objects moving up to 67 milliarcseconds per second, which is more than twice the expected baseline – similar to capturing a turtle crawling from a mile away.


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