Saturn’s rings steal the show in new image from the Webb Ars Technica telescope

Saturn stars in this near-infrared image taken June 25 by the James Webb Space Telescope.
Zoom in / Saturn stars in this near-infrared image taken June 25 by the James Webb Space Telescope.

The James Webb Space Telescope has observed Saturn for the first time, completing a family portrait of the Solar System’s ringed planets nearly a year after the mission’s first jaw-dropping image was released.

Webb’s near-infrared camera took the picture of Saturn on June 25. The scientists added the color orange to the monochrome image to produce the image released on Friday.

The image shows Saturn’s iconic icy rings glowing around the gas giant’s disk, which appears much darker in the near-infrared due to the absorption of sunlight by methane particles suspended high in the planet’s atmosphere.

Webb aimed his 21.3-foot (6.5-meter) gold-coated mirror at Saturn as part of an observing program to test the telescope’s ability to detect faint moons. The observations included several deep exposures of Saturn that astronomers are still analyzing to probe the planet’s faintest rings and look for undiscovered moons.

There are 146 known moons orbiting Saturn, ranging in size from larger than the planet Mercury to the size of a sports arena, more than any other planet in the solar system, according to NASA.

Any newly discovered moon could help scientists piece together a more complete picture of Saturn’s current system, as well as its past, NASA said in a blog post released with the new Saturn image.

Three of Saturn’s moons appear to the planet’s left in Webb’s view: Dione, Enceladus, and Thethys are visible as points of light. Each is roughly the size of a large US state.

Recent observations of Enceladus using Webb’s near-infrared spectrograph have revealed a jet of water vapor extending more than 6,000 miles (10,000 kilometers) into space, 20 times the diameter of the moon. Scientists say Enceladus is one of the solar system’s most promising places to search for signs of life because it hosts a water ocean beneath a global ice shell.

James Webb Space Telescope's first views (clockwise) of Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus.
Zoom in / James Webb Space Telescope’s first views (clockwise) of Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus.


NASA’s Cassini orbiter flew past Enceladus numerous times before its mission ended in 2017. Cassini spotted similar plumes of water erupting through fissures in Enceladus’ ice sheet and flew through the jets to sample particles from the deep ocean of the moon.

The Cassini spacecraft captured higher resolution images of Saturn than Webb, but with the Cassini mission over, Webb is the main tool scientists will use to continue studying Enceladus and Saturn for at least the next decade.

There are currently no book quests to visit Enceladus. NASA’s Dragonfly robotic mission is scheduled to launch to Saturn in 2027, but will focus on the exploration of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

Webb’s first science images were released nearly a year ago, showing promise from the $10 billion mission to see deeper into the Universe than ever before. Observations inside the Solar System are only a part of Webb’s scientific portfolio, together with scientific topics such as studying the formation of the first galaxies after the Big Bang and the search for planets around other stars that could contain the ingredients for the life.

Webb’s science teams have previously released spectacular views of the Solar System’s other planets, Jupiter, Neptune and Uranus, along with his first observations of Mars.

Stationed about a million miles from Earth, Webb is unable to observe the Moon, Mercury or Venus because they are too bright or too close to the Sun.

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