Since launching in December 2021, the powerful James Webb Space Telescope has already captured dramatic images of colorful galaxies, stunning nebulae and other breathtaking celestial bodies in the distant universe.
Webb’s composite photos of the gas giant are so impressive that even scientists were awe-struck.
“We hadn’t really expected it to be this good, to be honest,” says Imke de Pater, a planetary astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, who co-led the Jupiter observation project, in a statement.
NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency unveiled the two new images of Jupiter this week, both captured by the telescope’s Near-Infrared Camera, which can peer through the haze of space dust and uncover details beyond the visible light spectrum that human eyes can detect.
The camera sent back infrared light data from Jupiter, which is invisible to the human eye, so scientists then had to map the data onto the visible spectrum to produce the images. One of those scientists is Judy Schmidt, a California resident who has no formal educational background in astronomy but fell in love with image processing 10 years ago, per NASA.
Near-infrared data from Jupiter is difficult to work with because of how fast the planet is rotating, according to NASA. But with some digital adjustments, Schmidt and other image processors got the job done.
One of the images shows Jupiter on its own, with clearly defined bands of light pink, dusky blue and white covering the expansive planet that’s about 87,000 miles in diameter. Webb captured shining auroras, clouds and swirling hazes. The Great Red Spot—a massive storm that’s been raging on Jupiter for more than a century and could “swallow Earth,” per NASA—actually appears white in the image.
For the other photograph, Webb took a wider field of view that shows two of Jupiter’s moons, Amalthea and Adrastea, and the very faint rings of space dust that encircle the planet. Galaxies are visible as fuzzy specks in the lower background, “photobombing” the image, per NASA.
“It’s really remarkable that we can see details on Jupiter together with its rings, tiny satellites and even galaxies in one image,” de Pater says in the statement.
For all that we do know about Jupiter, there are still a lot of mysteries surrounding the gas giant, which is the fifth planet from the sun. Scientists are now studying the Webb images and data in hopes of learning even more; meanwhile, NASA’s Juno orbiter is also observing the planet.
“Looking at the universe with Webb will be like looking at a familiar photo with a different set of glasses that allow us to see new details in that photo that we had never seen before,” Mercedes Lopez-Morales, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian, told Smithsonian magazine’s Brian Handwerk in July. “Everywhere Webb will look, we will see something new.”