James Webb Telescope Uncovers Startling Clues in Saturn’s Atmosphere


A brand-new image captured by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has allowed astronomers to learn surprising details about Saturn’s atmosphere.

Saturn seems to be fairly dark in the image because methane gas absorbs sunlight almost entirely. The planet’s “unusual appearance” in this image, according to NASA, is caused by the rings’ ongoing brilliance. The left side displays Dione, Enceladus, and Tethys, while the right side displays the Cassini division, Encke gap, and rings A, B, C, and F. The greatest gap in Saturn’s ring system is the Cassini divide.

According to NASA, the extremely sensitive telescope’s near-infrared views of the ringed planet are a first for the instrument.  At 1.5 million kilometers (almost 932,000 miles) from Earth, the highly sensitive telescope studies the universe with light wavelengths longer than those of previous space observatories.

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Unveiling Moons and Rings

The image was captured by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera, or NIRCam, as part of a Webb program that consists of several very long exposures of Saturn, according to NASA. These exposures test Webb’s ability to identify faint moons around Saturn and its rings in order to better understand Saturn’s present and past systems.

According to NASA, differences between Saturn’s northern and southern poles are expected since the northern area is in summer while the southern hemisphere is emerging from winter darkness.  The darker-than-normal color of the northern hemisphere, however, may be caused by “an unknown seasonal process affecting polar aerosols in particular,” according to NASA.

Launched on Christmas Day in 2021, Webb can study the beginning of time more thoroughly, look for unrecorded formations among the first galaxies, and peer inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are currently forming. 

High-altitude methane fluorescence, emissions from the planet’s ionosphere, or both may be to blame for the brightening towards the edge of Saturn’s disk.

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Source: CNN

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