First science targets of NASA’s Webb telescope announced

This artist’s illustration represents the scientific capabilities of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Both imaging and spectroscopy will be central to the Webb mission.
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is scheduled to launch in spring 2019. The space agency recently announced the early release observing programs that will be completed within the first five months of Webb’s science operations. These 13 programs were selected from a Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) call for early release science proposals and included investigating Jupiter and its moons, looking for organic molecules forming around infant stars, weighing supermassive black holes in galactic cores and searching for baby galaxies born in the early universe.

“I’m thrilled to see the list of astronomers’ most fascinating targets for the Webb telescope, and extremely eager to see the results. We fully expect to be surprised by what we find,” said Dr. John C. Mather, Senior Project Scientist for the Webb telescope and Senior Astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, via a release.

The 13 research observations that make up the Director’s Discretionary Early Release Science (DD-ERS) are planned to cover a variety of JWST science targets, ranging from planets in our solar system to distant galaxies. The program is being initiated to provide the scientific community with access to the resulting data so that researchers will have the opportunity to analyze the data and plan further observations.

“We were impressed by the high quality of the proposals received,” said Dr. Ken Sembach, Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. “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.”

The selected observations should utilize all of JWST’s four science instruments, so that astronomers can explore the telescope’s full capabilities. Because the JWST has a minimum scientific lifetime of five years, researchers will have to quickly learn how to use its advanced features.

“We want the research community to be as scientifically productive as possible, as early as possible, which is why I am so pleased to be able to dedicate nearly 500 hours of director’s discretionary time to these ERS observations,” said Sembach.

One highly anticipated area of research by JWST is the study of exoplanets, planets that orbit other stars. When an exoplanet passes in front of its host star, light from the star filters through the planet’s atmosphere, which absorbs certain colors of light, depending on the atmosphere’s chemical composition. JWST will use its powerful infrared spectrographs to study the chemical fingerprints of the atmosphere’s gases.

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