Today, NASA released a list of celestial targets that will be revealed next week when the agency releases the first color images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST. Targets include galaxies, nebulae and a giant planet outside our solar system.
JWST is NASA’s new deep-space observatory, which launched on Christmas Day 2021. Featuring a large gold-coated mirror spanning over 21 feet in diameter, the observatory is poised to transform the field of astrophysics by collecting light from the first stars and galaxies that formed just after the Big Bang. It is also designed to study objects in our universe in unprecedented detail, giving us insight into our distant solar system, planets outside our cosmic neighborhood, asteroids, exotic stars in the depths of space, and more.
To get its first-ever images, JWST observed these target objects and regions of space for 120 hours, collecting five days of data. Until now, we didn’t know much about what the first images from JWST would be, although we did get some hints from NASA management. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, revealed that we would see light from the atmosphere of a planet outside our solar system, known as an exoplanet. And NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said an image is “the deepest image of our universe that has ever been taken”.
We can now study these deep space destinations before seeing them in detail next week. (In the case of the exoplanet, we expect to see a glimpse of its spectrum, a distribution of light in its atmosphere.) The target list for this watershed moment was selected by an international team of people from NASA, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency and the Space Telescope Science Institute, which oversees the operations and science of the JWST .
Some of the targets we’ve seen before, thanks to images captured by JWST’s predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope. But JWST’s mirror is almost three times wider than Hubble’s; Additionally, JWST is about 1 million kilometers from Earth, while Hubble is in low Earth orbit. Compared to the Hubble images, the JWST images should be even more detailed.
Check out the list of targets below, along with brief descriptions provided by NASA:
Carina Nebula. The Carina Nebula is one of the largest and brightest nebulae in the sky, located approximately 7,600 light-years away in the southern constellation of Carina. Nebulae are stellar nurseries where stars are formed. The Carina Nebula is home to many massive stars, several times larger than the Sun.
WASP-96b (spectrum). WASP-96b is a giant planet outside our solar system, composed mostly of gas. The planet, located nearly 1,150 light-years from Earth, orbits its star every 3.4 days. It has about half the mass of Jupiter and its discovery was announced in 2014.
South Ring Nebula. The Southern Ring Nebula, or “Eight-Burst”, is a planetary nebula – an expanding cloud of gas, surrounding a dying star. It measures nearly half a light-year in diameter and is located about 2,000 light-years from Earth.
Stephan’s Quintet: About 290 million light-years away, Stephan’s Quintet is located in the constellation Pegasus. It is notable for being the first group of compact galaxies ever discovered in 1787. Four of the quintet’s five galaxies are locked in a cosmic dance of repeated close encounters.
SMACS 0723: Massive clusters of foreground galaxies amplify and distort light from objects behind them, allowing a deep-field view of extremely distant and inherently faint galaxy populations.
NASA is expected to reveal the images on July 12 at 10:30 a.m. ET. And they are sure to be breathtaking. “What I saw moved me,” former astronaut and current NASA deputy administrator Pam Melroy said at a press conference, “as a scientist, as an engineer, and as a ‘To be human”.