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Webb rings in the holidays with the ringed planet Uranus
The planet Uranus on a black background. The planet appears blue with a large, white patch taking up the right half. The patch is whitest at the centre, then fades into blue as it expands from right to left. A thin outline of Uranus is also white. Around the planet is a system of nested rings. The outermost ring is the brightest while the innermost ring is the faintest. Unlike Saturn's horizontal rings, the rings of Uranus are vertical and so they appear to surround the planet in an oval shape. There are nine blueish white dots scattered around the rings.
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Webb rings in the holidays with the ringed planet Uranus
by Staff Writers
Greenbelt MD (SPX) Dec 19, 2023

The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope recently trained its sights on weird and enigmatic Uranus, an ice giant that orbits on its side. What Webb found is a dynamic world with rings, moons, storms and other atmospheric features - including a seasonal polar cap. The image expands upon a two-colour version released earlier this year, adding additional wavelength coverage for a more detailed look.

With its exquisite sensitivity, Webb captured Uranus's dim inner and outer rings, including the elusive Zeta ring - the extremely faint and diffuse ring closest to the planet. It also imaged many of the planet's 27 known moons, even seeing some small moons within the rings.

In visible wavelengths, Uranus appeared as a placid, solid blue ball. In infrared wavelengths (as seen here), Webb is revealing a strange and dynamic ice world filled with exciting atmospheric features.

One of the most striking of these is the planet's seasonal north polar cap. Compared to the image from earlier this year, some details of the cap are easier to see in these newer images. These include the bright, white, inner cap and the dark lane in the bottom of the polar cap, toward the lower latitudes.

Several bright storms can also be seen near and below the southern border of the polar cap. The number of these storms, and how frequently and where they appear in Uranus's atmosphere, might be due to a combination of seasonal and meteorological effects.

The polar cap becomes prominent when the planet's pole begins to point towards the Sun, as it approaches solstice and receives more sunlight. Uranus reaches its next solstice in 2028, and astronomers are eager to watch any possible changes in the structure of these features. Webb will help disentangle the seasonal and meteorological effects that influence Uranus's storms, which is critical to help astronomers understand the planet's complex atmosphere.

Because Uranus orbits on its side at a tilt of about 98 degrees, it has the most extreme seasons in the Solar System. For nearly a quarter of each Uranian year, the Sun shines over one pole, plunging the other half of the planet into a dark, 21-year-long winter.

With Webb's unparalleled infrared resolution and sensitivity, astronomers now see Uranus and its unique features with groundbreaking clarity. These details, especially of the close-in Zeta ring, will be invaluable to planning any future missions to Uranus, particularly the proposed Uranus orbiter and probe.

Scientists want to bring any visiting spacecraft as close to the planet as possible to measure the gravitational field of Uranus and better analyse the atmosphere. However, such a close approach would need to be planned carefully to avoid collisions with any possible debris from icy and dusty rings.

Uranus can also serve as a proxy for studying the many far-off, similarly sized exoplanets that have been discovered in the last few decades. This 'exoplanet in our backyard' can help astronomers understand how planets of this size work, what their meteorology is like, and how they formed. This can in turn help us understand our own Solar System as a whole by placing it in a larger context.

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Uranus, the seventh planet from the Sun, orbits in the outer solar system, about two billion miles (3.2 billion kilometers) from Earth. It is an enormous world - quadruple the diameter of Earth, with 15 times the mass and 63 times the volume. Unvisited by spacecraft for more than 35 years, Uranus inhabits one of the least explored regions of our solar system. Although scientists have learned some things about it from telescopic observations and theoretical work since the Voyager 2 flyby in 1986, t ... read more

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