NASA’s next-generation space telescope has a blue-eyed special among its solar system observations.
The James Webb Space Telescope will soon turn its attention to two intriguing ‘ice giants’ – Uranus and Neptune – after releasing its first operational images on July 12. Webb’s sharp eyes and position in deep space will be precious in finding details about them. Two worlds, given that only a single spacecraft (Voyager 2) briefly cruised through them in the 1980s.
Since then, scientists have been forced to use numerous telescopes to keep track of the weather on these worlds, and Webb will be a welcome addition to the team. According to a 2020 statement about the planned research, scientists want the observatory to study the composition and temperature of each atmosphere to understand how circulation and weather patterns play out in distant worlds.
As the community clamors for a mission to Uranus and Neptune, Webb presents an opportunity to take a high-resolution look at these worlds and learn more about their differences from Jupiter and Saturn. Neptune and Uranus are smaller and have interiors that are less rich in hydrogen and helium than their larger neighbors.
“The key thing that Webb can do, which is very, very difficult to achieve from any other instrument, is to map their atmospheric temperature and chemical structure,” said study leader Leigh Fletcher, a planetary scientist at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. Publication from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore.
“We think the weather and climate of the ice giants will have a fundamentally different character compared to the gas giants,” Fletcher said. “This is partly because they are so far from the Sun, smaller and rotate more slowly on their axes, but also because the gas mix and the amount of atmospheric mixing is very different compared to Jupiter and Saturn.”