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New Webb Telescope Images of Jupiter Reveal the Planet's Glimmering Auroras

The telescope will study Jupiter's Great Red Spot and its auroral regions.

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Jupiter’s faint rings and two of its moons can be seen against a backdrop of distant galaxies.
Jupiter’s faint rings and two of its moons can be seen against a backdrop of distant galaxies.
Image: NASA, ESA, Jupiter ERS Team; image processing by Ricardo Hueso (UPV/EHU) and Judy Schmidt

The Webb Space Telescope is capturing Jupiter as it’s never been seen before. The gas giant is glowing in the latest batch of Webb images, which show bright auroras at its north and south poles, huge storms that have been raging for centuries, extremely faint rings, and two of the planet’s 79 known moons.

Webb’s Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) took the images on July 27, providing scientists with unprecedented views of Jupiter. “We hadn’t really expected it to be this good, to be honest,” Imke de Pater, professor emerita of the University of California, Berkeley who led the recent observations of Jupiter, said in a statement. “We’ve never seen Jupiter like this. It’s all quite incredible.”

Jupiter is always a stunner. For years, the Juno spacecraft has beamed back incredible images of the solar system’s largest planet that showcase its swirling winds and gaseous streaks. But the amount of detail revealed by the Webb images is something else. That’s due to Webb’s ability to collect infrared light, a wavelength that is not visible to the human eye but that can travel through gas and dust that would otherwise obscure light. The images you see here are translated into the visible spectrum, to make them viewable by us and to highlight specific features of Jupiter.

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Citizen scientist Judy Schmidt helped translate the Webb data to the final images.
Citizen scientist Judy Schmidt helped translate the Webb data to the final images.
Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS Team; image processing by Judy Schmidt.

“Although we have seen many of these features on Jupiter before, JWST’s infrared wavelengths give us a new perspective,” said de Pater. Jupiter has the brightest auroras in the solar system, and the images reveal the auroral emissions from ionized hydrogen as a high-altitude haze above the planet’s north and south poles.

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Another main feature is Jupiter’s famous storm, the Great Red Spot. This high-pressure storm is believed to have been brewing on Jupiter for hundreds of years, rotating counter clockwise. In the images, it appears as a white dot because it is reflecting a lot of sunlight, according to NASA. “The brightness here indicates high altitude – so the Great Red Spot has high-altitude hazes, as does the equatorial region,” Heidi Hammel, Webb interdisciplinary scientist for solar system observations, said in a statement. “The numerous bright white ‘spots’ and ‘streaks’ are likely very high-altitude cloud tops of condensed convective storms.”

The wide-field image of Jupiter reveals its moons and rings.
The wide-field image of Jupiter reveals its moons and rings.
Image: NASA, ESA, Jupiter ERS Team; image processing by Ricardo Hueso (UPV/EHU) and Judy Schmidt
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Webb also revealed Jupiter’s dark ring system, which is a million times fainter than Jupiter itself, and the moons Amalthea and Adrastea. Meanwhile, tiny bright spots in the background are distant galaxies. “It’s really remarkable that we can see details on Jupiter together with its rings, tiny satellites and even galaxies in one image,” said de Pater.

Webb is expected to operate for about 20 years and possibly longer. The telescope is currently situated on a celestial perch that’s around 1 million miles away, from which it observes both nearby objects and some of the most distant light in the universe.

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More: Are the Colors in Webb Telescope Images ‘Fake’?