James Webb Space Telescope produces stunning new Jupiter images

One of the images of Jupiter taken by the James Webb Space Telescope released by NASA. Photo credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS Team

Not long after it produced images showing light as old as 13 billion years, NASA's James Webb Space Telescope has set its costly sights slightly closer to home.

In newly released images Jupiter - the fifth planet from the Sun - is shown to have storms, winds, extreme conditions and brilliant auroras thanks to the US$9 billion telescope.

According to the space agency, the observations will help scientists understand more of what's happening on the planet.

"We hadn't really expected it to be this good, to be honest," said planetary astronomer Imke de Pater.

The professor emerita of the University of California, Berkeley led the observations with Thierry Fouchet, a professor at the Paris Observatory, as part of an international collaboration, NASA said in a release.

"It's really remarkable that we can see details on Jupiter together with its rings, tiny satellites, and even galaxies in one image," she said. 

The images come from the telescope's Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), which has three specialised infrared filters to showcase details of the planet that otherwise would be invisible to the human eye.

Scientists collaborated with citizen scientist Judy Schmidt to translate the data into actual images.

Despite having no formal education in astronomy Schmidt got interested in processing images after a European Space Agency contest a decade ago, in which she placed third.

Since then she has been working on images from the Hubble and other telescopes as a hobby.

"Something about it just stuck with me, and I can't stop. I could spend hours and hours every day," she said.

Schmidt says she was excited about what else the telescope will produce, particularly young stars that produce jets in small nebula patches, called Herbig-Haro objects.

"I'm really looking forward to seeing these weird and wonderful baby stars blowing holes into nebulas," she said.  

Photo credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS Team

In the processed images of Jupiter, auroras at high altitudes are shown at the poles.

The Great Red Spot - a storm so big it could swallow the Earth - is shown near the bottom right of the planet as white, because it reflects a lot of sunlight. Other clouds do the same.

"The brightness here indicates high altitude - so the Great Red Spot has high-altitude hazes, as does the equatorial region," said Heidi Hammel, Webb interdisciplinary scientist for solar system observations and vice president for science at AURA.

"The numerous bright white ‘spots' and ‘streaks' are likely very high-altitude cloud tops of condensed convective storms."

In the wide-field view image Jupiter's faint rings - which are a million times less bright than the planet - are shown as well as two moons, called Amalthea and Adrastea.  

"This one image sums up the science of our Jupiter system program, which studies the dynamics and chemistry of Jupiter itself, its rings, and its satellite system," Fouchet said.