A revolutionary way to study the universe is almost here. The JWST, Hubble’s successor, is about to begin its scientific mission and its first real color images will be revealed to the world on Tuesday, July 12. The space observatory has been a long time in the making, and now NASA has revealed the five targets we're going to get a look at.
Next week, we will see how JWST sees the Carina Nebula, one of the brightest and largest in the sky. The JWST infrared observations will bring even more detail to an object that is well studied. The nebula is a stellar nursery, among its wisps and clouds new stars are being born, and JWST has the power to see them clearly. The nebula is located 7,500 light-years from Earth.
Another nebula will also be revealed. The Southern Ring Nebula, roughly 2,000 light-years away, is the expanding shell of gas from a binary star system where a star lost its gassy envelope and turned into a white dwarf.
The third target in our galaxy is exoplanet WASP-96b. We won’t see an image of it. JWST will just take a spectrum of it, to understand in detail the composition of its atmosphere. This distant world is located 1,150 light-years from Earth. It has a mass half that of Jupiter but it orbits its star in just 3.4 days. Back in 2018, it was determined this was the first cloudless exoplanet.
Much further afield is Stephen’s Quintet, one of the oldest known compact groups of galaxies. Four out of the five galaxies are actually a real group in space not just appearing so in the sky. They have been interacting with each other for eons creating structures full of activity that is expected to be spectacular when seen in glorious infrared detail by JWST. The galaxies are located 290 million light-years away.
Last but certainly not least is SMACS 0723, a galaxy cluster known for its incredible mass, that some estimates place at around 839 trillion times the mass of our Sun. It is located 4.2 billion light-years away and its enormous mass warps space-time, acting as a gravitational lens magnifying galaxies in the background that are much fainter and a lot further away.
This is just the beginning for JWST, a collaborative effort between the European Space Agency, Canadian Space Agency, and NASA. The comparison between its capabilities and its infrared predecessor Spitzer has blown our minds already and we can’t wait to see these historic images on Tuesday.