Webb’s Jupiter Images Showcase Auroras, Hazes

Jupiter dominates the black background of space. The planet is striated with swirling horizontal stripes of neon turquoise, periwinkle, light pink, and cream. The stripes interact and mix at their edges like cream in coffee. Along both of the poles, the planet glows in turquoise. Bright orange auroras glow just above the planet’s surface at both poles.
Webb NIRCam composite image of Jupiter from three filters – F360M (red), F212N (yellow-green), and F150W2 (cyan) – and alignment due to the planet’s rotation. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS Team; image processing by Judy Schmidt.

With giant storms, powerful winds, auroras, and extreme temperature and pressure conditions, Jupiter has a lot going on. Now, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has captured new images of the planet. Webb’s Jupiter observations will give scientists even more clues to Jupiter’s inner life.  

“We hadn’t really expected it to be this good, to be honest,” said planetary astronomer Imke de Pater, professor emerita of the University of California, Berkeley. De Pater led the observations of Jupiter with Thierry Fouchet, a professor at the Paris Observatory, as part of an international collaboration for Webb’s Early Release Science program. Webb itself is an international mission led by NASA with its partners ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency). “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 two images come from the observatory’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), which has three specialized infrared filters that showcase details of the planet. Since infrared light is invisible to the human eye, the light has been mapped onto the visible spectrum. Generally, the longest wavelengths appear redder and the shortest wavelengths are shown as more blue. Scientists collaborated with citizen scientist Judy Schmidt to translate the Webb data into images. 

In the standalone view of Jupiter, created from a composite of several images from Webb, auroras extend to high altitudes above both the northern and southern poles of Jupiter. The auroras shine in a filter that is mapped to redder colors, which also highlights light reflected from lower clouds and upper hazes. A different filter, mapped to yellows and greens, shows hazes swirling around the northern and southern poles. A third filter, mapped to blues, showcases light that is reflected from a deeper main cloud.  

The Great Red Spot, a famous storm so big it could swallow Earth, appears white in these views, as do other clouds, because they are reflecting a lot of sunlight. 

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.” By contrast, dark ribbons north of the equatorial region have little cloud cover.  

A wide-field view showcases Jupiter in the upper right quadrant. The planet’s swirling horizontal stripes are rendered in blues, browns, and cream. Electric blue auroras glow above Jupiter’s north and south poles. A white glow emanates out from the auroras. Along the planet’s equator, rings glow in a faint white. At the far left edge of the rings, a moon appears as a tiny white dot. Slightly further to the left, another moon glows with tiny white diffraction spikes. The rest of the image is the blackness of space, with faintly glowing white galaxies in the distance.

A wide-field view showcases Jupiter in the upper right quadrant. The planet’s swirling horizontal stripes are rendered in blues, browns, and cream. Electric blue auroras glow above Jupiter’s north and south poles. A white glow emanates out from the auroras. Along the planet’s equator, rings glow in a faint white. At the far left edge of the rings, a moon appears as a tiny white dot. Slightly further to the left, another moon glows with tiny white diffraction spikes. The rest of the image is the blackness of space, with faintly glowing white galaxies in the distance.
Webb NIRCam composite image from two filters – F212N (orange) and F335M (cyan) – of Jupiter system, unlabeled (top) and labeled (bottom). Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Jupiter ERS Team; image processing by Ricardo Hueso (UPV/EHU) and Judy Schmidt.

In a wide-field view, Webb sees Jupiter with its faint rings, which are a million times fainter than the planet, and two tiny moons called Amalthea and Adrastea. The fuzzy spots in the lower background are likely galaxies “photobombing” this Jovian view.   

“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. Researchers have already begun analyzing Webb data to get new science results about our solar system’s largest planet. 

Data from telescopes like Webb doesn’t arrive on Earth neatly packaged. Instead, it contains information about the brightness of the light on Webb’s detectors. This information arrives at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), Webb’s mission and science operations center, as raw data. STScI processes the data into calibrated files for scientific analysis and delivers it to the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes for dissemination. Scientists then translate that information into images like these during the course of their research (here’s a podcast about that). While a team at STScI formally processes Webb images for official release, non-professional astronomers known as citizen scientists often dive into the public data archive to retrieve and process images, too.

Judy Schmidt of Modesto California, a longtime image processor in the citizen science community, processed these new views of Jupiter. For the image that includes the tiny satellites, she collaborated with Ricardo Hueso, a co-investigator on these observations, who studies planetary atmospheres at the University of the Basque Country in Spain.   

At the left, a seated image of Judy Schmidt on a bench against a backdrop of green leaves. On the right, an astronomical image of a from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope shows the butterfly-like planetary nebula in green, yellow, and blue, against the black backdrop of space.
Citizen scientist Judy Schmidt of Modesto, California, processes astronomical images from NASA spacecraft, such as the Hubble Space Telescope. An example of her work is Minkowski’s Butterfly, right, a planetary nebula in the direction of the constellation Ophiuchus.

Schmidt has no formal educational background in astronomy. But 10 years ago, an ESA contest sparked her insatiable passion for image processing. The “Hubble’s Hidden Treasures” competition invited the public to find new gems in Hubble data. Out of nearly 3,000 submissions, Schmidt took home third place for an image of a newborn star.  

Since the ESA contest, she has been working on Hubble and other telescope data as a hobby. “Something about it just stuck with me, and I can’t stop,” she said. “I could spend hours and hours every day.” 

Her love of astronomy images led her to process images of nebulae, globular clusters, stellar nurseries, and more spectacular cosmic objects. Her guiding philosophy is: “I try to get it to look natural, even if it’s not anything close to what your eye can see.” These images have caught the attention of professional scientists, including Hammel, who previously collaborated with Schmidt on refining Hubble images of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9’s Jupiter impact. 

Jupiter is actually harder to work with than more distant cosmic wonders, Schmidt says, because of how fast it rotates. Combining a stack of images into one view can be challenging when Jupiter’s distinctive features have rotated during the time that the images were taken and are no longer aligned. Sometimes she has to digitally make adjustments to stack the images in a way that makes sense. 

Webb will deliver observations about every phase of cosmic history, but if Schmidt had to pick one thing to be excited about, it would be more Webb views of star-forming regions. In particular, she is fascinated by young stars that produce powerful 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.  

– Elizabeth Landau, NASA Headquarters 

How to Follow Webb’s Next Steps

This illustration depicts NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope – the largest, most powerful, and most complex space science telescope ever built – fully unfolded in space. Credits: NASA/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez

Now that NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope’s first images and data are out, you might be wondering: What comes next?

The observatory has a packed schedule of science programs looking at all kinds of cosmic phenomena, like planets, stars, galaxies, black holes, and more. Webb will revolutionize our understanding of the universe — but first, researchers need time to analyze data and make sure that they understand what they’re seeing. Here are four things to know about Webb’s next steps:

More images are coming. Webb has already captured more images beyond the ones you saw on July 12, and the Cartwheel Galaxy is just one example. Hold onto your intergalactic hats — we’ll be rolling those out in the coming weeks at nasa.gov/webb and on the NASAWebb social media channels. Some of those images give a first look at Webb’s capabilities, but are not part of science programs. In the meantime, you can revisit the first images at nasa.gov/webbfirstimages. We also have this page where you can find the full array of images and data at full resolution.

News releases on results will be coming, too, once they have been reviewed. You may have seen scientists on social media posting their preliminary findings from Webb data. But before NASA publicizes results in news materials, we wait for the findings to be peer-reviewed — meaning, the science community has assessed the results. Science is a collaborative process of asking questions, testing out ideas, discussing with colleagues, and doing it all over. The peer-review process generally happens when researchers submit their findings to a journal or conference. It may take a little while, but it’s worth it.

There is other publicly available data you can check out. Anyone can take a deep dive into what Webb saw during the commissioning period, such as images of Jupiter and some of its moons. Check out the Barbara A. Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes, which scientists call “MAST,” for what’s out there right now.

The current Webb observing schedule is set and available. If you want to find out what Webb is looking at this week, visit the Space Telescope Science Institute’s weekly schedule to find out which cosmic objects the observatory is checking out. The full buffet of Webb observations for the next year, known as Cycle 1, is available here.

Thanks for being part of this historic journey!

-Elizabeth Landau, NASA Headquarters