Here are the first images of Saturn from JWST

It’s Saturn’s turn.

The JWST is aiming its powerful, gold-coated, segmented beryllium mirror at the second largest and perhaps most amazing planet in our Solar System. So far, we only have a preview of the raw images without any scientific elaboration or commentary.

But I’m a start.

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We are accustomed to the beautiful images of Saturn from the Hubble Space Telescope, particularly as part of its Outer Planets Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) observing program. Those images are not only scientifically rich, but they are also eye candy for the rest of us. But that’s not what these new images of Saturn from the JWST are about.

This image from the Hubble Space Telescope captures exquisite detail of Saturn and its ring system.  It is from 2019 and is part of the Outer Planets Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) project.  Image credits: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (GSFC), MH Wong (University of California, Berkeley), and the OPAL team
This image from the Hubble Space Telescope captures exquisite detail of Saturn and its ring system. It is from 2019 and is part of the Outer Planets Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) project. Image credits: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (GSFC), MH Wong (University of California, Berkeley), and the OPAL team

These images come from a proposal that is testing JWST’s NIRCAM instrument and its ability to detect faint moons around bright planets like Saturn. Saturn has 146 confirmed moons, not counting the thousands of moons nestled in its rings. But there may be other identifiable moons hidden beyond the reach of our previous technology. The JWST could find them.

Not only that, but finding faint moons around Saturn will help find faint moons around other planets, even in other solar systems. “Deep spectra of selected small moons of Saturn (Epimetheus, Pandora, Pallene and Telesto) with NIRSpec IFU will test the ability of JWST to acquire deep spectra of faint targets near bright planets, which will be useful for ERS (Early Release Science) and GO (General Observatories) of other planetary systems”, explains the description of the proposal.

Ouch.  My eyes!  This one needs some elaboration, but it's obviously Saturn.  What else does this look like?  Image credit: Image credit: NASA/CSA/ESA/STScI
Ouch! My eyes! This one needs some elaboration, but it’s obviously Saturn. What else does this look like? Image credit: Image credit: NASA/CSA/ESA/STScI

These images are a peek behind the curtain of slick press releases, elaborate images, and scientific commentary. But they are charming in their own way. First, it shows how much work it takes to transform images and raw data into something recognizable.

Remember the JWST “Cosmic Cliffs” image from last summer? It was a combination of images captured with the telescope’s MIRI and NIRCAM instruments with different filters.

JWST has captured this stunning image of a portion of the nicknamed Carina Nebula
The JWST captured this stunning image of a portion of the Carina Nebula dubbed the “Cosmic Cliffs” in July 2022. Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

But the raw images looked very different. Here’s one.

JWST captured this raw image of NGC 3324, the Carina Nebula, with its MIRI instrument and F1130W filter.  It only begins to take shape when it is processed and combined with other images.  Image credit.  NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI
JWST captured this raw image of NGC 3324, the Carina Nebula, with its MIRI instrument and F1130W filter. It only begins to take shape when it is processed and combined with other images. Image credit. NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

Here’s another one, and this one looks more like what we’re used to seeing in press releases and on websites.

Another raw JWST feature image
Another raw JWST image of the “Cosmic Cliffs” feature in NGC 3324. This one was captured with NIRCAM and its F444W filter. Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

If the JWST images of Jupiter from a year ago are any indication, once these raw images are processed, a fascinating display awaits. JWST has shown us Jupiter as we have never seen it before and the images of it were stunning, something we are starting to expect from the telescope.

This JWST image of Jupiter practically jumps off the screen. We can’t wait to see his images of Saturn once they get the same treatment. Image credit: NASA/CSA/ESA/STScI

There is a group of excellent astronomical image processors, including Judy Schmidt (aka Geckzilla), Kevin Gill and others, who will no doubt bring these images of Saturn to life with their artistry. Who knows? Perhaps they have already got their hands on them and are busy preparing them for us.

Stay tuned.


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