New James Webb Photographs of Jupiter Reveal Auroras, Clouds, Moons and More

The James Webb Space Telescope continues to produce mind-boggling images of space. This time, instead of looking into the past, the space telescope turned to our cosmic neighborhood, turning its expensive, state-of-the-art cameras toward the largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter.

There are many things going on on Jupiter, from giant storms to powerful winds to auroras.

Although several missions have studied Jupiter and its moons up close, using the latest telescope at our disposal isn’t a terrible idea to try and find out more.

That is precisely what NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope did.

Jupiter’s inner life will be revealed even further by Webb’s observations.

The upper right quadrant of the image shows Jupiter in a wide field view. Colors such as blues, browns, and cream are used to render the planet’s swirling horizontal stripes. Polar auroras glow electric blue above Jupiter’s north and south poles. There is a white glow emanating from the auroras.

A stunning view of Jupiter by the James Webb Space Telescope. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS Team; image processing by Judy Schmidt.
A stunning view of Jupiter by the James Webb Space Telescope.  This is a composite Webb NIRCam image of Jupiter derived from three filters and aligned due to the planet’s rotation.  Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS Team; image processing by Judy Schmidt.

Auroral light is mapped to redder colors in a filter that also highlights light reflected from lower clouds and upper hazes. The northern and southern poles can be seen in hazes using a different filter, which is mapped to yellows and greens. Thirdly, a blue filter reveals light reflected from a deeper main cloud.

Due to the amount of sunlight reflecting from the clouds, the Great Red Spot appears white in these views.

An equatorial ring glows faintly white along the planet’s equator. Compared to the planet itself, these rings are a million times fainter. An image of one of the Jovian moon appears at the left edge of the rings as a tiny white dot. The diameter of this moon is only about 12 miles (20 km). On the left is another moon, about 100 miles (150 km) across, which is dotted with tiny white diffraction spikes. There are faintly glowing white galaxies in the distance, but the rest of the image is black.

Many details are reveled in this image of Jupiter by the James Webb Space Telescope. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS Team; image processing by Judy Schmidt.
Many details are revealed in this image of Jupiter by the James Webb Space Telescope. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS Team; image processing by Judy Schmidt.

Two images were taken with the observatory’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), which employs three infrared filters to reveal details on the planet. Because infrared light cannot be seen by humans, it has been translated into visible light.

A longer wavelength is generally shown as redder, while a shorter wavelength is shown as bluer. In order to translate Webb data into images, scientists collaborated with citizen scientist Judy Schmidt.

The brightness indicates high altitude, so both the Great Red Spot and the equatorial region have hazes associated with high altitude,” explained Heidi Hammel, the Webb interdisciplinary scientist for solar system observations.

“The numerous bright white ‘spots’ and ‘streaks’ are likely very high-altitude cloud tops of condensed convective storms.” By contrast, dark ribbons north of the equatorial region have little cloud cover. ”

Observations from telescopes like Webb don’t come to Earth neatly packaged. The raw data contains information about Webb’s detector brightness. The science operations center for Webb, STScI, receives these raw data. A calibration file is prepared by STScI and distributed to the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes so they can be analyzed scientifically.


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