Unveiling the Giants: Mid-Infrared Observations of the Solar System's Largest Planets


A century of mid-infrared observations has significantly advanced our understanding of the atmospheres of the giant planets in our solar system. A researcher from the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom and Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez in Chile has reviewed the developments in this field and the potential of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to further enhance our knowledge of these planets.

Saturn and Jupiter. Elements of this image furnished by NASA © revers_jr - stock.adobe.com

Saturn and Jupiter. Elements of this image furnished by NASA © revers_jr - stock.adobe.com

The exploration of the giant planets in our Solar System has been a significant field of study in planetary science, offering insights into the atmospheres of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Observations using mid-infrared (mid-IR) spectroscopy are valuable for revealing the intricate details of these planets' atmospheric temperature, chemistry, and dynamics. A recent comprehensive review by Michael T. Roman from the School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Leicester, and Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez in Chile, published in the journal Remote Sensing, highlights the progress made over more than a century of mid-IR observations and anticipates future discoveries with the JWST (1).

The mid-infrared (mid-IR) region of the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) is a spectral region physicists would say is from 5 to 30 microns. (Chemists would say this region is from 2000 to 333 cm-1.) This mid-IR region offers a unique perspective into the atmospheres of giant planets, as it is able to capture the transition from scattered sunlight to intrinsic thermal emission, and allows scientists to observe distinct thermal structures and spectral signatures of various atmospheric molecules (1). These observations provide critical data on chemical abundances, kinetic temperatures, and ambient pressures, all of which are essential for understanding the composition and dynamics of complex planetary atmospheres.

The field of mid-IR remote sensing began modestly in the late 19th century, with William Herschel's discovery of infrared radiation. Over the following decades, advancements in radiometric technology, such as the development of the bolometer by Samuel Pierpont Langley, enabled the first measurements of thermal emissions from celestial bodies. By the early 20th century, astronomers had extended their observations further into the mid-IR, providing the first quantitative estimates of thermal emission from planets like Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus (1–2).

Technological Advancements: Significant progress in mid-IR remote sensing has been driven by technological innovations in telescopes and detectors. Ground-based observatories equipped with sensitive instruments, such as the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Cerro Paranal, have made it possible to capture mid-IR radiation despite the Earth's atmospheric opacity. Techniques like chopping and nodding, which isolate and subtract the sky's thermal contribution, have further refined these observations, allowing detailed studies of planetary atmospheres even from the ground (1).

Jupiter and Saturn: Due to their proximity and relatively warm temperatures, Jupiter and Saturn have been the primary focus of mid-IR observations. These studies have revealed intricate details about their atmospheric composition and thermal structures. For instance, measurements of Jupiter's 13-micron emission have provided insights into its temperature and chemical composition, while similar studies on Saturn have offered comparable data (1).

Challenges with Uranus and Neptune: Uranus and Neptune, being colder and more distant, have posed greater challenges for mid-IR observations. However, advancements in detector sensitivity and the upcoming capabilities of the JWST promise to overcome these hurdles. The JWST's Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) is expected to provide unprecedented clarity and detail, potentially rewriting much of what we know about these ice giants.

Future Prospects with JWST: The James Webb Space Telescope, set to revolutionize our understanding of the giant planets, will provide high-resolution mid-IR observations that surpass current capabilities. Its advanced instruments will allow scientists to observe these planets with greater detail and precision, particularly focusing on the less studied Uranus and Neptune. These observations are anticipated to yield new insights into the temporal and seasonal variability of giant planet atmospheres, enhancing our understanding of their dynamic processes (1).

The field of mid-infrared remote sensing of giant planets has come a long way, from its early beginnings to the sophisticated observations of today. The review by Michael T. Roman and his colleagues underscores the importance of this spectral region in unveiling the mysteries of planetary atmospheres. As the JWST prepares to launch its advanced observational capabilities, the future of mid-IR studies promises to be even more exciting, potentially leading to groundbreaking discoveries about the giant planets in our Solar System (1).

(1) Roman, M. T. Mid-Infrared Observations of the Giant Planets. Remote Sens. 2023, 15 (7), 1811. DOI: 10.3390/rs15071811

(2) Suárez, G.; Vos, J. M.; Metchev, S.; Faherty, J. K.; Cruz, K. Ultracool Dwarfs Observed with the Spitzer Infrared Spectrograph: Equatorial Latitudes in L Dwarf Atmospheres Are Cloudier. ApJL 2023, 954 (1), L6. DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/acec4b/meta

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