James Webb Space Telescope Sends Astonishing Jupiter Picture

gas giant and one of its moons appear in vivid new detail

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

NASA released a new image of Jupiter taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. The breathtaking image of the enormous planet was released on July 14. Jupiter makes a big impact on our solar system.

Solar System - Jupiter. It is the fifth planet from the Sun and the largest in the Solar System.
In our solar system, Jupiter is the fifth planet from the Sun and the largest planet. Photo by NASA images / Shutterstock

On July 12, NASA released five of the first images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope. They included the Carina Nebula, Stephan’s Quintet, and the Southern Ring Nebula. Two days later, NASA released another enlightening picture—of something much closer to home. On July 14, NASA published an incredible image of Jupiter and its moon, Europa, shedding new light on the gas giant.

Jupiter’s immense size and mass affect much of the solar system. In her video series A Field Guide to the Planets, Dr. Sabine Stanley, a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor in the Morton K. Blaustein Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at John Hopkins University, explains how different things would be without Jupiter.

He Ain’t Heavy; He’s Jupiter

“Aside from no longer seeing the white and brown orb through a telescope, would the solar system be very different if Jupiter had not formed?” Dr. Stanley asked. “Turns out the answer is a resounding ‘yes,’ and it’s because of Jupiter’s enormous gravitational sphere of influence, known as a Hill sphere. Because Jupiter is so massive, it has a strong gravitational influence on any objects that get close to it.”

With regard to any object orbiting the Sun, scientists can calculate how close the object needs to get to Jupiter before Jupiter’s gravitational attraction is greater than that of the Sun. That distance, known as Jupiter’s Hill sphere, is 55 million kilometers (34 million miles) surrounding Jupiter.

However, despite Jupiter being the most massive planet, it doesn’t have the largest Hill sphere. That honor, Dr. Stanley said, belongs to Neptune, with a radius of 87 million kilometers (54 million miles). This is because distance from the Sun greatly influences a planet’s Hill sphere. So, while Neptune may have less mass than Jupiter, it makes up for it by having less gravitational interference from the Sun.

Jupiter’s Influence

“Let’s say you are a small rocky or icy body, like an asteroid or a comet, minding your own business, orbiting the Sun, but your orbit happens to take you near Jupiter,” Dr. Stanley said. “Jupiter’s gravity will act to disturb your orbit and can result in one of two scenarios.”

The first scenario is that, given the right orbit and trajectory, Jupiter can slow down an asteroid or comet enough that it starts orbiting Jupiter. Scientists believe this is where many of Jupiter’s smaller moons may have come from. Dr. Stanley also said that in 1994, a comet called Shoemaker-Levy 9 became “tidally broken apart” and crashed into Jupiter itself.

“The second possibility is that Jupiter may change your orbit so much that you get kicked to new regions of the solar system that you would never have ventured to otherwise,” she said. “For example, it’s believed that comets originating far in the outer solar system that happen to have orbits taking them near Jupiter can end up in the inner solar system through such gravitational interactions with Jupiter.”

More information about the James Webb Space Telescope can be found by reading Wondrium’s exclusive interview with astrobiologist Dr. Sarah Rugheimer.

A Field Guide to the Planets is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily