Jupiter as seen by the James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the largest and most powerful space telescope ever made, has recently observed the planet Jupiter in great detail showing the colossal storms and enormous auroras that are produced in its atmosphere. The two images released by NASA – which manages the telescope in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian (CSA) – were obtained using the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) instrument. As the name suggests, its sensors are sensitive to infrared, the part of electromagnetic radiation that we cannot see because it has a frequency lower than that of visible light.

In addition to being particularly spectacular to look at, these images will help astronomers deepen their knowledge of the largest planet in our solar system.

Infrared observation allows us to grasp details that otherwise we would not be able to see and which are very useful for studying the characteristics of space objects. The images are then processed to be made visible to our eyes, using colors that make it possible to highlight particular characteristics.

The image of Jupiter you see below was obtained putting together various shots of the planet taken by JWST. At the poles of the planet, auroras are visible, rendered with a color from green to red, which reach high altitudes in the planet’s atmosphere. The Great Red Spot is also clearly visible, the storm that has lasted for at least three centuries and which is the largest in the entire solar system, so large that it can contain almost three planets the size of the Earth.

In the image, the spot appears white, because like other clouds in the Jovian atmosphere, it reflects large amounts of sunlight and consequently appears very bright in the filters used to observe the planet in infrared.

(NASA, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS Team; Judy Schmidt)

In a second image, several other details of what is in the vicinity of Jupiter are visible. For example, the faint rings of the planet are observable, much less evident than those of Saturn and with an apparent brightness up to a million times lower than the average of Jupiter’s atmosphere. At a greater distance we can observe Adrastea and Amalthea, two small Jupiter moons. The dim points of light in the background are probably other galaxies, which have sneaked into the image due to their high brightness.

(NASA, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS Team; Ricardo Hueso (UPV / EHU) and Judy Schmidt)

The two images offer in great detail new perspectives on one of the most studied planets in our solar system. Jupiter it is the largest and most bulky celestial body in our vicinity: 11 planets like ours would be needed lined up to cover its diameter, and 300 would be needed to obtain a mass equal to its own.

Unlike Earth, Jupiter is not rocky: it is a giant ball of gas made up mostly of hydrogen and helium. Given its size, astronomers believe it was the first planet to form in the solar system, when it incorporated the leftovers of the gases that made up the Sun. Jupiter takes 12 years to complete a full circle around the Sun and spins very fast on itself. : a day in its part lasts just 10 hours.

Launched on December 25, 2021the JWST reached its observation point about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth in the spring, where it started at to observe the Universe with its powerful tools that allow it to capture the light emitted from very distant sources, billions of light years away from us. The telescope sends data on the brightness and light captured by its instruments to the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which carries out an initial processing by providing files that can then be used by astronomers for their studies.

A space object can be observed in infrared using different filters, calibrated to capture a specific wavelength. So you can to assign to each filter the equivalent of the pieces that our eyes can see. What has the longest infrared wavelength can be translated to red, for example, while what has the shortest infrared wavelength is translated to blue. In this way, we can take the radiation from a part of the spectrum that our eyes cannot see and move it to the part that is visible to us. In a way it’s like raising or lowering the pitch of a song.

The research groups of the STScI disseminate images processed in this way especially for communication purposes, but astronomers and simple enthusiasts are free to make their own elaborations, choosing for example to highlight some characteristics over others, for research purposes or pure aesthetic taste according to circumstances and needs.

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