NASA releases James Webb images of Jupiter, Europa, and Asteroid 6481 Tenzing

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is the gift that keeps giving.

Right after releasing the first set of images on July 12 — four extraordinary observations in the distant cosmos — taken by the world’s most powerful space observatory, NASA has now stealthily revealed data from the telescope’s commissioning period from the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes.

The data includes some alluring images of Jupiter, along with photos and spectra of several asteroids that were captured to test the telescope’s instruments much before vetting the observatory’s science instruments. The released data is another testimony of the magnificent telescope’s ability to capture objects that are closer to home – in our solar system with immense detail.

“Combined with the deep field images released the other day, these images of Jupiter demonstrate the full grasp of what Webb can observe, from the faintest, most distant observable galaxies to planets in our own cosmic backyard that you can see with the naked eye from your actual backyard,” said Bryan Holler, a scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, who helped plan these observations, in a statement.

The observatory has captured the planet and its rings in great detail

Through Webb’s infrared gaze, one can spot the giant planet’s distinct cloud bands and its Great Red Spot, although the spot appears white due to how Webb’s infrared image was processed. Interestingly, Jupiter’s moons, including Europa, which harbors an enormous ocean under its icy shell, are also clearly visible. 

“I couldn’t believe that we saw everything so clearly, and how bright they were,” said Stefanie Milam, Webb’s deputy project scientist for planetary science based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “It’s really exciting to think of the capability and opportunity that we have for observing these kinds of objects in our solar system.”

Jupiter and moons
Left: Jupiter, center, and its moons Europa, Thebe, and Metis are seen through the James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam instrument 2.12 micron filter. Right: Jupiter and Europa, Thebe, and Metis are seen through NIRCam’s 3.23 micron filter. Source: NASA, ESA, CSA, and B. Holler and J. Stansberry (STScI)

The NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera that uses two different filters which highlight separate wavelengths of light) instrument’s long-wavelength filter image even showed some of the planet’s faint rings. The rings showing up in one of Webb’s first solar system images were “absolutely astonishing and amazing,” said Milam.

Mind-blowing images of Jupiter’s moons

These images are solid proof that Webb can observe the rings and satellites near bright solar system objects. Webb may also be able to observe the signatures of plumes depositing material on the surface of Europa. “I think that’s just one of the coolest things that we’ll be able to do with this telescope in the solar system,” said Milam.

John Stansberry, observatory scientist and NIRCam commissioning lead at the Space Telescope Science Institute, said: “The Jupiter images in the narrow-band filters were designed to provide nice images of the entire disk of the planet, but the wealth of additional information about very faint objects (Metis, Thebe, the main ring, hazes) in those images with approximately one-minute exposures was absolutely a very pleasant surprise.”

Webb also obtained images of Jupiter and Europa moving across the telescope’s field of view in three separate observations, substantiating the observatory’s ability.

“These observations verified the expectation that guide star acquisition works successfully as long as Jupiter is at least 140” away from the FGS, consistent with pre-flight modeling,” the commissioning report states.

Jupiter
Jupiter and some of its moons are seen through NIRCam’s 3.23 micron filter. Source: NASA, ESA, CSA, and B. Holler and J. Stansberry (STScI)

JWST has surpassed expectations

There’s more.

Webb also released a bonus shot of Asteroid 6481 Tenzing, located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, testing the telescope’s ability to study fast-moving targets. During commissioning, scientists working with Webb had conducted observations of various asteroids, which all appeared as a dot because they were small. Webb was designed to track objects that move as fast as Mars, which has a maximum speed of 30 milliarcseconds per second.

Asteroid
Asteroid 6481 Tenzing, center, is seen moving against a background of stars in this series of images taken by NIRCam. Source: NASA, ESA, CSA, and B. Holler and J. Stansberry (STScI)

Overall, the commissioning report says that JWST has surpassed expectations. 

“The key outcome of six months of commissioning is this: JWST is fully capable of achieving the discoveries for which it was built. JWST was envisioned “to enable fundamental breakthroughs in our understanding of the formation and evolution of galaxies, stars, and planetary systems” — we now know with certainty that it will,” the authors write in the report.

NASA wrote on Twitter: “It’s true what they say: The data start coming and they don’t stop coming…”

We really can’t wait to see what’s next in store.

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