Side-by-side images of Uranus show how NASA's James Webb telescope outclasses Hubble, spotting vivid rings that used to go unseen

A side by side comparison of recent pictures of Uranus shows the rings much brighter when taken with JWST than Hubble.  The pictures are annotated and read "Hubble" and "JWST"
Images taken by Hubble space telescope (left) and JWST (right) of Uranus in 2022 and 2023, respectively. Uranus' rings can be seen in far greater detail by JWST.NASA, ESA, STScI, Amy Simon (NASA-GSFC), Michael H. Wong (UC Berkeley), NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI. Image processing: J. DePasquale (STScI), Insider
  • NASA has turned its powerful James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) on Uranus.

  • JWST's picture shows 11 of the icy giant's 13 rings in unprecedented detail.

  • The picture could shed light on the planet's unique and mysterious polar cap, NASA said.

NASA recently released a new picture of Uranus snapped by its powerful James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

The pictures show a whole new side of the planet with the powerful space observatory capturing 11 of the icy giant's 13 rings in unprecedented detail.

Side-by-side images show once again how much more powerful JWST is than NASA's other space observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope, when it comes to infrared imaging.

"The Webb data demonstrates the observatory's unprecedented 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," NASA said in a press release April 6.

An annotation of the JWST picture reads "polar cap" with an arrow that points to a slightly paler blue area on Uranus.
An annotated image points to Uranus's polar cap.NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI. Image processing: J. DePasquale (STScI), Insider

JWST didn't only snap the planet. It also took a wide look at the Uranian planetary system, including six of its brightest moons

A picture taken by JWST shows the planet surrounded by Puck, Titania, Oberon, Umbriel, Ariel and Miranda
An infrared picture shows the Uranian constellation around the planet, including annotated six of its 27 known moonsNASA, ESA, CSA, STScI. Image processing: J. DePasquale (STScI)

JWST took this picture in a single 12-minute exposure. NASA hopes that by turning the telescope towards Uranus again, JWST can get even better-resolution pictures of our icy neighbor.

Uranus's mysterious rings continue to impress

Though this picture provides a new view of the planet, this isn't the first time scientists have taken an image of Uranus's rings.

Voyager 2, NASA's space probe that is still sending data back 45 years after its launch, provided insight into Uranus's rings when it sailed past the planet in 1986.

A grainy black and white photo shows a close up of Uranus's rings.
Image of Uranus' rings, backlit by the sun. taken by Voyager 2 in 1986.NASA

The probe spotted two new, fainter, rings, bringing the number of know rings around the planet to 11.

These two fainter rings were only seen clearly by Voyager 2 and the Keck observatory on Earth. Hubble was unable to see these rings, though it did spot another two faint outer rings about 20 years ago, bringing the planet's known ring number to 13.

Three side by side images show different views of the rings as seen by Hubble. These are faint in the pictures.
The rings as spotted by Hubble in 2007-2008NASA, ESA, and M. Showalter (SETI Institute)

Hubble sees ultraviolet light, visible light, and a small slice of infrared, while JWST looks at the universe across the infrared spectrum, Insider previously reported.

Webb's much larger mirror means its pictures can provide better resolution images than Hubble's in infrared, the spectrum of light used to take these pictures of Uranus.

Since JWST launched on December 25, 2021, it has provided some stunning views of the universe.

NASA hopes the two fainter outer rings will be visible to JWST next time it turns its attention to Uranus.

It's not just Uranus's rings that are getting attention

JWST's image also provides a good look at Uranus's mysterious polar cap.

Uranus is a slightly bizarre planet in that it is tilted about 100 degrees with respect to its orbit around the sun, possibly the result of an Earth-sized moon smashing it off its orbit millennia ago.

That means the planet looks like it rotates sideways as it travels around the sun.

Because it takes Uranus 82 years to orbit the sun, its seasons are very long-lasting. Half of the planet is plunged into a 21-year-long winter every Uranian year.

Scientists are very interested in a unique feature that develops every Uranian summer: a polar cap that appears on the side facing the sun.

"This polar cap is unique to Uranus – it seems to appear when the pole enters direct sunlight in the summer and vanish in the fall," NASA said in the press release, adding: "these Webb data will help scientists understand the currently mysterious mechanism."

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