PORTLAND, Ore. — After capturing the best photos of Neptune in decades in 2022, NASA has pointed the James Webb telescope’s high-powered lenses at the solar system’s other ice giant, Uranus.
NASA said the telescope’s “stunning” new view of Uranus, captured on Feb. 6, provides a detailed look at the planet’s faint, rarely photographed rings.
“The new image features dramatic rings as well as bright features in the planet’s atmosphere,” NASA announced on April 6. “The Webb data offer exquisite sensitivity for the faintest dusty rings, which have only ever been imaged by two other facilities: the Voyager 2 spacecraft as it flew past the planet in 1986, and the Keck Observatory with advanced adaptive optics.”
The zoomed-in image of Uranus also shows the planet’s unique axis. Unlike Earth, which spins on an axis of 23.4 degrees, Uranus rotates at an angle of almost 90 degrees, NASA says. This extreme tilt makes Uranus the only planet to rotate almost completely on its side. As a result, the planet’s poles are located on its sides, giving it the appearance of a ball rolling around the sun.
“On the right side of the planet there’s an area of brightening at the pole facing the Sun, known as a polar cap,” NASA said.
“This polar cap is unique to Uranus because it is the only planet in the solar system tilted on its side, which causes its unique seasons. A new aspect of the polar cap revealed by Webb is a subtle brightening near the Uranian north pole.”
The bright spots seen in the image are the planet’s clouds, which NASA says are likely related to typical storm activity. A wider view of the Uranian system also shows six of the planet’s 27 known moons, most of which are too small to be seen in the image. The visible objects in the wide shot include Uranus, its moons Ariel, Miranda, Oberon, Puck, Titania and Umbriel, and many distant galaxies.