The main task of the James Webb Space Telescope, thanks to its infrared observation capabilities, is to look into the most remote regions of the universe and search for the first galaxies that appeared just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. But that doesn’t change the fact that astronomers and planetologists, whose main objects of interest are much closer than… the end of the universe, are also lining up to use its 6.5-meter-long, gold-coated mirror. This was also the case here: the telescope, which looks into the farthest reaches of the cosmos, focused on observing Saturn, the planet in our cosmic backyard.

The latest flagship space telescope observes the cosmos from an orbit around the L2 libration point, located 1.5 million kilometers from Earth at the extension of the line connecting the Sun and Earth. At this point, the gravitational pull of the Earth and the Sun cancel each other out, so that the objects left there maintain their position relative to the Earth at all times.

James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)

Saturn, the sixth planet of the solar system, on the other hand, is located 1.43 billion kilometers from the Sun and is the second largest planet in the solar system in terms of mass (after Jupiter). Saturn’s most distinctive feature is its extensive ring system, which is unparalleled in the entire planetary system.

On June 25, 2023, JWST pointed its mirror toward Saturn and made the first infrared observations of the rings in its still short career. The first raw images, though not yet processed, have already caught the attention of scientists.


Wait a minute! Where is Saturn?

The above photos look suspicious, for they show the rings, but no planet. This is mainly because the methane in the planet’s clouds absorbs almost all the solar radiation incident on the planet’s atmosphere. The rings, meanwhile, shine like crazy in the photo.

It didn’t have to wait too long, however, for much more interesting versions of them to appear. Taking pictures of Saturn, scientists wanted to see how much detail of its environment they would be able to capture. As it turned out, by the way, there is quite a lot. In addition to the rings themselves and many of their details, the photo also shows some of the planet’s 146 known moons. The image shows Dione, Enceladus and Thetis, among others. Some of the unpublished images taken with longer exposure times will allow scientists to look at the planet’s fainter rings such as the G ring and the E ring. The latter, incidentally, is fed by geysers gushing from Enceladus’ south pole.

Source: NASA, ESA, CSA, Matthew Tiscareno (SETI Institute), Matthew Hedman (University of Idaho), Maryame El Moutamid (Cornell University), Mark Showalter (SETI Institute), Leigh Fletcher (University of Leicester), Heidi Hammel (AURA)

Observations of the planet itself have also yielded a lot of interesting information. Photographing the planet at wavelengths of 3.23 microns, the researchers were able to spot large, dark structures in the planet’s Northern Hemisphere, which is currently in summer. Interestingly, these structures do not align along the planet’s latitude line. Scientists suspect that they may be giant waves of aerosols floating in the planet’s stratosphere above the planet’s main clouds seen in images taken in other radiation bands.

By Rad Kos

Author of OuterSpace24. Astronomy communicator. Writing daily about space since 2015. Over 6000 news articles under the belt.