James Webb Jupiter

James Webb Telescope uncovers the secrets of Jupiter’s atmosphere

Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS Team

Nasa’s James Webb Space Telescope has captured pictures of Jupiter that provide unprecedented detail of the planet’s inner life.

The telescope discovered giant storms raging inside its atmosphere, powerful winds, auroras, and extreme temperature and pressure conditions.

“We hadn’t really expected it to be this good, to be honest,” said planetary astronomer Imke de Pater, professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s really remarkable that we can see details on Jupiter together with its rings, tiny satellites, and even galaxies in one image.”

The two images come from the observatory’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), which has three specialised infrared filters that showcase details of the planet.

James Webb Jupiter

Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS Team

Since infrared light is invisible to the human eye, the light has been mapped onto the visible spectrum. Generally, the longest wavelengths appear redder and the shortest wavelengths are shown as bluer.

In the standalone view of Jupiter, created from a composite of several images from Webb, auroras extend to high altitudes above both the planet's northern and southern poles.

Its Great Red Spot, a storm big enough to swallow Earth, stands out brightly alongside countless smaller storms.

“The brightness here indicates high altitude – so the Great Red Spot has high-altitude hazes, as does the equatorial region,” said Heidi Hammel, Webb interdisciplinary scientist. “The numerous bright white ‘spots’ and ‘streaks’ are likely very high-altitude cloud tops of condensed convective storms.”

In a wide-field view, Webb sees Jupiter with its faint rings, which are a million times fainter than the planet, and two tiny moons called Amalthea and Adrastea. The fuzzy spots in the lower background are likely galaxies 'photobombing' this Jovian view.  

“This one image sums up the science of our Jupiter system program, which studies the dynamics and chemistry of Jupiter itself, its rings, and its satellite system,” said Thierry Fouchet, a professor at the Paris Observatory who led the observations with De Pater.

Jupiter James Webb

Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS Team

Researchers have already begun analysing Webb data in search of new information results about our solar system’s largest planet.

Data from telescopes like Webb doesn’t arrive on Earth neatly packaged. Instead, it contains information about the brightness of the light on Webb’s detectors.

This information arrives at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), Webb’s mission and science operations centre, as raw data.

STScI processes the data into calibrated files for scientific analysis which is then translated into images like these during the course of scientific research.

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