Surprise! Uranus has rings in new Webb image

Most textbook images of Uranus show it as a featureless, bright blue ball.

But the James Webb Space Telescope, the preeminent new observatory that detects light at invisible infrared wavelengths, allows astronomers to see the seventh planet from the sun for what it really is: a world crowned with rings, of glorious rings.

Nasa scientists say Uranus’ rings have only been captured by two other cameras. They were first spotted by the Voyager 2 spacecraft during its 1986 pass. Later, the Keck Observatory in Hawaii spied the planet’s ring system with advanced adaptive optics technology. New space image follows Webb’s heels picture of Neptune last year, which also revealed ghostly rings around another solar system ice giant.

“JWST is a ring machine,” Stefanie Milam, a NASA planetary scientist, said in a video shared by Boston’s Museum of Science. “This is one of the first times we’ve seen the rings of Uranus in a very, very long time. They’re really, really hard to see, and that’s because they’re made of ice and dust.”

Uranus is also made up of “icy” materials, such as water, methane and ammonia, wrapped around a small rocky core. It is the only tilted planet in the solar system(Opens in a new tab) so its equator is nearly at right angles to its orbit, causing it to have extreme seasons. For Uranus, it takes 84 years to make one trip around the sun, which means it spends long periods of bright sunlight and total darkness.

Right now, the planet, nearly 2 billion miles from Earth, is experiencing late spring at its north pole, as seen the new picture(Opens in a new tab). Its boreal summer will begin in five years. When Voyager 2 visited Uranus(Opens in a new tab) decades ago it was summer at its south pole. The south pole is now out of sight and faces the darkness of space.

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How many rings does Uranus have?

Uranus has 13 known rings, 11 of which are visible in the new image. Some of these rings are so bright to Webb that when brought together they seem to merge into a larger ring. Nine are believed to be the planet’s main rings, and two are the faintest dusty rings discovered by Voyager 2. Scientists expect future Webb images of the planet to reveal the other outer rings, according to a feature of the Space Telescope Science Institute(Opens in a new tab) in Baltimore.

“JWST is a ring machine.”

Such vivid images taken in this solar system demonstrate the $10 Billion Space Telescopeto collect extraordinary data not only on the distant universe – its main objective – but also on celestial objects closer to home. Scientists believe Webb will trigger a golden age in our understanding of the cosmos.

Webb discovered that there was a subtle, bright spot at the pole of the sun, known as the a polar cap(Opens in a new tab). This polar cap is apparently unique to Uranus; It appears to appear when the pole enters direct sunlight in the summer and disappears in the fall, according to NASA. The new observations from the telescope will help researchers understand what’s going on and how it works.

NASA planetary scientist Jessie Christiansen was impressed with the new image of Uranus, but shared side-by-side photos of Saturn and the icy giant on social media to compare the size of their ring systems.

Don’t completely blow your previous notions about ringed planets in this solar system, she warned in a tweet last week.

“Saturn is still the queen of the rings!” she says.

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