Annotated image showing the polar cap and bright clouds in the Uranian atmosphere. (NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI/J. DePasquale)

NEW YORK, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has captured stunning new images of Uranus, revealing a polar brightening as the planet moves

into the full light of the summer Sun. When Voyager 2 flew by Uranus in 1986, it was summer on the south pole, but now, it is late spring at the north pole, with summer due to hit in 2028. The cause of this bright polar cap is unknown, but the unprecedented resolution provided by the JWST may provide some new insights.

The telescope’s data also reveals a subtle but unmistakable region of enhanced brightening at the center of the polar cap, and scientists will be able to take this information into account as they study the phenomenon in detail.

In addition to the polar brightening, the JWST has imaged 11 of the 13 known rings circling Uranus, including the two faint, dusty inner rings that were only discovered when Voyager 2 visited in 1986. Scientists hope that future observations will capture the two faint outer rings beyond the main group.

The telescope has also captured images of six of Uranus’ 27 known moons. While some are too faint to be seen, the six moons in the image above all share their orbital plane with Uranus’ equatorial plane, as do the smaller, inner moons. Uranus also has a collection of irregular, much more distant moons that have inclined, elliptical orbits, similar to those of Jupiter’s irregular moons. Studying the particulars of these moons may be useful in understanding how Uranus got to be the way it is.

The ongoing and scheduled JWST observations of Uranus are expected to provide more insights into the ice giant planet. These observations may also help scientists make a compelling case for sending a dedicated probe to Uranus in the future.

Annotated image showing six of the moons of Uranus appearing in the JWST image. (NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI/J. DePasquale)

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