We’re used to seeing jaw-dropping close-ups every six weeks from NASA’s Juno spacecraft currently in orbit, but Webb’s captures are something new.
The image, above, was part of Webb data released on the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes. Also included were images of Jupiter’s moons and even its delicate rings, captured to test the telescope’s instruments before science operations officially began July 12, 2022.
The Jupiter image from Webb’s NIRCam instrument (main article image, above) shows three incredible objects and features in and around the giant planet:
1. Its moon Europa
Europa can be easily seen to the left. It is a moon believed to harbor an ocean beneath its thick, icy crust. Life could be yours. Europa’s shadow can be seen to the left of the Great Red Spot. Thebe and Metis are also visible in these images.
NASA’s Europa Clipper mission will launch in October 2024 and arrive in late 2027 to perform about 45 flybys, in each pass photographing the moon’s icy surface in high resolution. It could help increase oxygen and other essential ingredients for life on the moon. Meanwhile, the European Space Agency’s JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE) will launch in May 2022, arrive in 2029 and take three and a half years to examine Europa as well as two of Jupiter’s other Galilean moons, Ganymede and Callisto.
2. Its ‘Great Red Spot’ storm
400-year-old storm, the Great Red Spot, was twice as large as Earth’s original. It is the largest solar system storm, and it rolls counterclockwise between two bands that move in opposite directions. Its winds reach speeds up to 425 miles per hour. The iconic spot appears white in this image because of the way Webb’s infrared image was processed.
3. Its clouds are full of bands
The NIRCam instrument’s short-wavelength filter shows distinct bands that encircle the planet.
Another image however shows something even more amazing:
Jupiter has rings
The above image from Webb’s NIRcam long-wavelength filter also reveals the giant planet’s rings—just like the famously “ringed planet” Saturn. This information was first discovered in 1979. NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft imaged themThey are rarely captured. These rings were formed by meteoroid impacts from small moons, according to data from Galileo’s spacecraft.
That Jupiter’s rings show up in one of Webb’s first solar system images is “absolutely astonishing and amazing,” said Stefanie Milam, Webb’s deputy project scientist for planetary science based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.“ I couldn’t believe that we saw everything so clearly, and how bright they were … it’s really exciting to think of the capability and opportunity that we have for observing these kinds of objects in our solar system.”
Jupiter from two more perspectives
These new views of Jupiter are enhanced by two additional filters that show more moons.
Above, left: Jupiter, center, and its moons Europa, Thebe, and Metis are seen through the James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam instrument 2.12 micron filter.
Above, right: Jupiter and Europa, Thebe and Metis are seen through NIRCam’s 3.23 micron filter.
How significant are Webb’s first images of Jupiter?
“Combined with the deep field images released the other day, these images of Jupiter demonstrate the full grasp of what Webb can observe, from the faintest, most distant observable galaxies to planets in our own cosmic backyard that you can see with the naked eye from your actual backyard,” said Bryan Holler, a scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, who helped plan these observations.
“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.
Hubble’s most recent Jupiter portrait
Each year the Hubble Space Telescope—which remains of Critical importance despite Webb’s “first light”—issues an image of Jupiter and Saturn taken as part of its Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) program. It typically images the two giant outer planets when they reach “opposition, which is the date Earth is between that planet and the Sun.
Opposition refers to when each planet shines brightest and is at its greatest, best and brightest. It occurs at sunrise in the west and dawn in the east.
Jupiter will be next at opposition on September 26th, with Saturn following suit on August 14th 2022. The next close-ups of Jupiter from NASA’s Juno spacecraft are due just after its next perijioveClose flyby August 19, 2022
We wish you bright skies and wide-eyed visions.