After dazzling the world with the first images from the powerful James Webb Space Telescope this week, NASA released even more photos from the observatory yesterday, this time pictures from within our own Solar System. The space agency revealed the telescope’s images of the planet Jupiter, as well as an asteroid, used as reference targets when engineering teams were calibrating the observatory’s instruments.
The pictures serve as a small teaser of the images we should be getting from our Solar System in the months and years to come. The James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, may be known for its ability to peer into some of the deepest recesses of the Universe, but scientists will also be using the telescope to study our own cosmic neighborhood in greater detail.
Because these images of Jupiter were used as guides for JWST engineers, they aren’t as sparkly as the highly processed, full-color photos that NASA released this week of distant nebulas and galaxies. But the pictures do show the kind of precision we can expect from JWST’s images of the outer Solar System. Jupiter’s iconic storm feature, the Great Red Spot, can be clearly seen in the photos, as well as the planet’s icy moon Europa. And Jupiter’s thin rings, which often go overlooked in images of the gas giant, make a very faint appearance.
- Jupiter and its moon Europa seen through JWST’s NIRCam instrument 2.12 micron filter. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, and B. Holler and J. Stansberry (STScI)
- Left: Jupiter and some of its moons seen through NIRCam instrument 2.12 micron filter. Right: Jupiter and moons seen through NIRCam’s 3.23 micron filter. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, and B. Holler and J. Stansberry (STScI)
- Jupiter’s rings can be seen through NIRCam’s 3.23 micron filter. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, and B. Holler and J. Stansberry (STScI)
The images prove that JWST will be able to see relatively faint objects like the rings and moons surrounding particularly bright planets in our outer Solar System, like Jupiter and Saturn. And that’s going to be useful in our ongoing hunt for possible signs of life near Earth. For instance, scientists believe that both Europa and Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus harbor liquid oceans underneath their crusts, reservoirs that may have the right materials for life to exist. JWST might be able to observe these moons and any icy plumes of water erupting from underneath their surfaces, according to NASA.
The photos of an asteroid that NASA released also showcase JWST’s ability to track fast-moving objects. Scientists want to use the observatory to track objects like asteroids, comets, and more. To test this ability out, the commissioning team locked onto an asteroid in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter, proving they could keep an eye on it with JWST. Ultimately, they found the observatory can keep track of objects moving twice as fast as what they expected to be able to track. It’s “similar to photographing a turtle crawling when you’re standing a mile away,” NASA wrote in a blog post.