Good news, everyone. NASA has picked the first targets in the cosmos for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to observe, and there are some exciting things on offer.
The JWST is scheduled to launch in the spring of 2019, after having been delayed slightly from its initial planned launch in October 2018. Over the past few months, NASA has been looking at proposals from scientists to decide what the telescope will look at first.
The JWST – which sees in infrared – is 100 times more powerful than Hubble by some accounts. It will offer us a completely new look at the universe, so understandably there’s a lot of excitement and competition over who gets to use it first.
And that’s now been announced. The initial targets for the JWST include looking at the process of star formation, studying Jupiter and its moons, and examining the super-heated regions around massive black holes known as quasars. You can see the full list of targets here.
Perhaps the most exciting initial early target, though, will be the study of atmospheres around exoplanets. While JWST may eventually be able to do this for Earth-like worlds, it will begin with some Jupiter-sized worlds in tight orbits around their stars, such as WASP-39b and WASP-43b.
"We were impressed by the high quality of the proposals received," said Dr Ken Sembach, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, in a statement. "These observing programs not only will generate great science, but also will be a unique resource for demonstrating the investigative capabilities of this extraordinary observatory to the worldwide scientific community."
In total, these Director's Discretionary Early Release Science (DD-ERS) targets will come to about 500 hours of observing time. More than 100 proposals were submitted in August 2017, and of those 13 were chosen.
Some of these proposals are still subject to change, as the JWST’s optics need to remain shielded from the Sun, so it can only look at specific portions of the sky during the course of a year.
The excitement won’t begin immediately after launch, either. It will take about six months for JWST to be ready to begin its science mission, which includes a delicate dance to get it into its planned position beyond the orbit of the Moon, 1.5 million kilometers (about 1 million miles) from Earth.
Once there, though, we can expect a host of exciting science to come our way. These proposals will make up just the first five months of the telescope’s initial five-year science mission. It’s very possible that will be extended though, giving us a fantastic view on the universe for years to come.