NASA has released two more images created from data collected by the James Webb Space Telescope, revealing incredible details about the largest planet in the solar system.
The data used to process the images was captured in late July using the telescope’s Near-Infrared Camera, which detects light at wavelengths slightly longer than those at the red end of the visible spectrum. By observing Jupiter at these wavelengths beyond visible light, the powerful space telescope is able to discover details of the planet not seen before.
One of the photos in particular shows the auroras at both poles resulting from Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field. The colors in these images are false – because infrared light is invisible to the human eye, the light is mapped into the visible spectrum. The auroras shine in a filter mapped to redder colors due to the emission of ionized hydrogen.
Jupiter’s “Great Red Spot” also stands out in the new images, although it appears white rather than reddish. This white color indicates reflection of cloud tops at high altitudes.
A second image provides a broader view of the Jupiter system, showing perspective on the planet’s thin rings, two of its small moons and the size of its auroras. The rings are exceptionally difficult to observe from afar, as they are 1 million times fainter than the planet. Distant galaxies are also visible in the background.
Imke de Pater, professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, led Webb’s scientific observations of the planet along with Thierry Fouchet, a professor at the Paris Observatory.
“We didn’t really expect it to be this good, to be honest,” she said in the press release accompanying the images. “It’s really remarkable that we can see details on Jupiter along with its rings, small satellites and even galaxies in one image.”
Why did it take so long to process these images? The simple answer is that the James Webb Space Telescope doesn’t take pictures with its large mirrors that can easily be returned to Earth. Instead, raw light brightness data from Webb’s detectors is sent to the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. Scientists, including NASA researchers, translate that data into images, the best of which are released publicly.
However, this data store is public and citizen scientists can also use this data to process images. In the case of the new Jupiter images, Judy Schmidt of Modesto, California did this processing work. For the image with the small satellites, she collaborated with Ricardo Hueso, who studies planetary atmospheres at the University of the Basque Country in Spain.