James Webb Space Telescope view of Saturn’s moon Titan excites scientists

NASA, ESA, CSA, A. Pagan (STScI), W. M. Keck Observatory

The James Webb Space Telescope has turned us into excited little children at Digital Camera World, so it’s no surprise that planetary scientists are thrilled at the images coming from the revolutionary telescope – including Webb’s latest images of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

As I’ve said before (as a casual observer rather than an expert scientist), one of the brilliant things about the official Webb website from NASA is that each image is accompanied by a clear explanation of how the image was created or what it’s showing. 

At the beginning of November, scientists got to glimpse the first Webb images of Titan. Thaddeus Cesari explains (opens in new tab) that scientists had “waited for years to use Webb’s infrared vision to study Titan’s atmosphere, including its fascinating weather patterns and gaseous composition, and also see through the haze to study albedo features (bright and dark patches) on the surface.”

Saturn’s moon Titan is the only planet other than Earth with rivers, lakes, and seas. But unlike Earth, its dense atmosphere is full of a thick haze that obscures visible light reflecting off the surface.

The teams working on the project compared different images captured by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) to confirm that a bright spot was actually a large cloud. “We then realized it was important to find out if the clouds were moving or changing shape, which might reveal information about the airflow in Titan’s atmosphere.” They reached out to the Keck Observatory in Hawaii for follow-up observations that could help them to discover more.

Evolution of clouds on Titan over 30 hours between Nov. 4 and Nov. 6, 2022, as seen by Webb NIRCam (left) and Keck NIRC-2 (right). Titan’s trailing hemisphere seen here is rotating from left (dawn) to right (evening) as seen from Earth and the Sun. Cloud A appears to be rotating into view while Cloud B appears to be either dissipating or moving behind Titan’s limb (around toward the hemisphere facing away from us). (Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, A. Pagan (STScI), W. M. Keck Observatory)

“The goal was to probe Titan from its stratosphere to surface, to try to catch the clouds we saw with Webb. The observations were a success!”

Since the official Webb launch, NASA has been unveiling regular images taken and viewed by the telescope, including a “Cosmic Tarantula, dwarf galaxy, and the most distant starlight ever seen.

Of course, in terms of imaging, the James Webb Space Telescope is nothing like the best deep-space telescopes that we generally buy to gaze up at the night sky, or like the best camera for astrophotography.

And if you want to see more Webb image releases, head to the James Webb Space Telescope gallery (opens in new tab), where you can see all of Webb’s first images and learn more about what they depict. NASA will be launching new images regularly (opens in new tab).

We’ll report on more James Webb Space Telescope images (opens in new tab) as they get released, from the angle of imaging than the subjects themselves. 

If you’re feeling inspired, why not check out the best telescopes (opens in new tab) for watching the night sky at home?