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'Bonus' Webb Telescope images showcase Jupiter's Great Red Spot, rings, moons and more

Jupiter and its moon Europa, left, are seen through the James Webb Space Telescope's NIRCam instrument 2.12 micron filter.
Jupiter and one of its many moons, Europa are seen through the James Webb Space Telescope's NIRCam instrument 2.12 micron filter. (Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and B. Holler and J. Stansberry (STScI))

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope keeps showing us what it can do.

On Tuesday (July 12), the James Webb Space Telescope (opens in new tab) team unveiled the mission's first science-quality images (opens in new tab), a handful of amazingly detailed shots of the deep and distant universe. And Thursday (July 14), the team released some tantalizing photos of Jupiter, highlighting the $10 billion telescope's ability to study targets much closer to home.

"Combined with the deep field images released the other day, these images of Jupiter (opens in new tab) demonstrate the full grasp of what Webb can observe, from the faintest, most distant observable galaxies to planets in our own cosmic backyard that you can see with the naked eye from your actual backyard," Bryan Holler, a scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore who helped plan the Jupiter observations, said in a statement (opens in new tab).

Related: NASA's James Webb Space Telescope mission: Live updates (opens in new tab)

Gallery: James Webb Space Telescope's 1st photos (opens in new tab)

Left: Jupiter and its moons Europa, Thebe and Metis are seen through the James Webb Space Telescope's NIRCam instrument 2.12 micron filter. Right: Jupiter and Europa, Thebe and Metis are seen through NIRCam’s 3.23 micron filter.  (Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and B. Holler and J. Stansberry (STScI))

The Jupiter photos were captured during Webb's commissioning period, when mission team members were calibrating and vetting the observatory's four science instruments and other systems. Commissioning wrapped up early this week (opens in new tab), and Webb officially began science operations on Tuesday.

Webb, which launched on Dec. 25, 2021 (opens in new tab), was designed to peer deep into the universe's past, studying the first stars and galaxies ever to form. But the infrared observatory is a highly capable multipurpose tool, and astronomers will use it to investigate a variety of cosmic objects and phenomena — including some in our own solar system (opens in new tab), as the Jupiter pictures show.

Those photos are quite detailed, capturing the giant planet's cloud bands, its famous Great Red Spot and even some of its faint rings. Several moons are visible in the images as well, including Europa (opens in new tab), a frigid world that harbors a huge ocean beneath its icy shell.

Jupiter and some of its moons are seen through the James Webb Space Telescope's NIRCam 3.23 micron filter. (Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and B. Holler and J. Stansberry (STScI))

"I couldn't believe that we saw everything so clearly, and how bright they were," Stefanie Milam, Webb's deputy project scientist for planetary science based at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in the same statement. "It's really exciting to think of the capability and opportunity that we have for observing these kinds of objects in our solar system."

The Webb team also observed several asteroids (opens in new tab) during commissioning, testing the telescope's ability to study fast-moving targets. Webb passed these tests with flying colors, team members said.

"Everything worked brilliantly," Milam said.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There (opens in new tab)" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or on Facebook (opens in new tab).

Mike Wall
Space.com Senior Writer
Michael was a science writer for the Idaho National Laboratory and has been an intern at Wired.com, The Salinas Californian newspaper, and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. He has also worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz.