Today, NASA released a list of celestial targets that will be revealed next week when the agency publishes the first full-color images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST. The targets include galaxies, nebulas, and a giant planet outside our Solar System.
JWST is NASA’s massive new deep-space observatory, which launched on Christmas Day in 2021. Sporting a large gold-coated mirror spanning more than 21 feet across, the observatory is set to transform the field of astrophysics by collecting light from the first stars and galaxies that formed right after the Big Bang. It’s also designed to study objects throughout our Universe in unprecedented detail, giving us insight into our distant Solar System, planets outside our cosmic neighborhood, asteroids, exotic stars in the deepest reaches of space, and more.
To get its very first images, JWST observed these target objects and regions of space for 120 hours, collecting five days’ worth of data. Up until now, we didn’t know much about what the first images of JWST would be, though we got some hints from NASA leadership. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, revealed that we’d see the light from the atmosphere of a planet outside our Solar System, known as an exoplanet. And NASA administrator Bill Nelson said that one image is the “deepest image of our Universe that has ever been taken.”
Now we can study up on these deep-space destinations before we see them in vivid detail next week. (In the exoplanet’s case, we expect to get a glimpse of its spectrum, a breakdown of the light in its atmosphere.) The target list for this breakthrough 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 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 nearly three times wider than that of Hubble; plus, JWST sits roughly 1 million miles from Earth, whereas Hubble is in low Earth orbit. Compared to the Hubble images, JWST’s images should be even more detailed.
Check out the list of targets below, as well as 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 Carina. Nebulae are stellar nurseries where stars form. 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 mainly 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.
Southern Ring Nebula. The Southern Ring, or “Eight-Burst” nebula, is a planetary nebula – an expanding cloud of gas, surrounding a dying star. It is nearly half a light-year in diameter and is located approximately 2,000 light years away 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 compact galaxy group ever discovered in 1787. Four of the five galaxies within the quintet are locked in a cosmic dance of repeated close encounters.
SMACS 0723: Massive foreground galaxy clusters magnify and distort the light of objects behind them, permitting a deep field view into both the extremely distant and intrinsically faint galaxy populations.
NASA is set to reveal the images on July 12th at 10:30AM ET. And they are sure to be breathtaking. “What I have seen just moves me,” Pam Melroy, a former astronaut and current deputy administrator of NASA, said during a press conference, “as a scientist, as an engineer, and as a human being.”