The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has just released its first raw images of Saturn, and they are stunning. Although the final processed images have not yet arrived, we can already tell that they will be spectacular.
The images were taken with the JWST telescope’s Near Infrared Spectrograph Instrument (NIRSpec). Although the images have not yet been processed, they are already available on the unofficial JWST Feed website.
Many of the images show just a glowing white spot, but some particularly stand out. For example, one image shows Saturn itself almost black. This is probably due to the filters used. As NASA explained in 2010, Saturn’s rings reflect sunlight at 2 microns, but not at 3 and 5 microns. Saturn’s high-altitude haze reflects both 2-micron and 3-micron sunlight. The two filters for these images operate in the longer wavelength bands, so the rings shimmer almost isolated against the blackness of space.
Other images show streaks of Saturn’s clouds, and the rings glow brightly around the center like a fluorescent ring. The observations were commissioned by a team led by planetary scientist Lee Fletcher of the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. They say NIRSpec should be sensitive to detecting new satellites around the planet.
Saturn temporarily lost its title as the planet with the most Jupiter satellites a few months earlier this year. The JWST camera could also be a new point of contact for continued observations in the time domain after the Cassini space probe died in 2017.
The images are so new, the science is certainly in full swing. We can’t wait to see what they look like when they’re polished and shiny, and what interesting new things Fletcher and his team might discover about them.