NASA teases list of first celestial objects imaged by James Webb Space Telescope

Today NASA released a list of celestial targets that will be released next week when the agency releases the first full-color images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST. Targets include galaxies, nebulae and a giant planet outside of our solar system.

JWST is NASA’s massive new space observatory launched on Christmas Day 2021. With a large gold-coated mirror spanning more than 21 feet, the observatory will change the field of astrophysics by collecting light from the first stars and galaxies that formed just after the Big Bang. It’s also designed to examine objects throughout our universe in unprecedented detail, giving us insights into our distant solar system, planets outside our cosmic neighborhood, asteroids, exotic stars in the deepest reaches of space, and more.

To obtain its first-ever images, JWST observed these targets and regions of space for 120 hours, collecting five days’ worth of data. Until now, we didn’t know much about what the first images of JWST would be, although we did get some hints from NASA leadership. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s 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 that an image is the “deepest picture of our universe ever taken.”

Now we can delve into these space targets before we see them in vivid detail next week. (In the case of the exoplanet, we expect a glimpse of its spectrum, a breakdown of the light in its atmosphere.) The target list for this groundbreaking moment was selected by an international team including staff from NASA, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency and the Space Telescope Science Institute, which oversees the operations and science of JWST.

We’ve seen some of the targets 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; Also, JWST is about 1 million miles from Earth while Hubble is in low Earth orbit. Compared to the Hubble images, the images from JWST should be even more detailed.

Check out the list of targets below, along with brief descriptions from NASA:

Carina Nebula. One of the largest and brightest nebulae in the sky, the Carina Nebula is located about 7,600 light-years away in the southern constellation of Carina. Nebulae are stellar nurseries where stars form. The Carina Nebula hosts many massive stars many times larger than the Sun.

WASP-96b (spectrum). WASP-96 b is a giant planet outside of our solar system, composed mostly of gas. Nearly 1,150 light-years from Earth, the planet orbits its star every 3.4 days. It is 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 across and about 2,000 light-years from Earth.

Stephan’s quintet: About 290 million light-years away is Stephen’s quintet 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 galaxy clusters in the foreground magnify and distort light from objects behind, allowing a deep look into the extremely distant and intrinsically faint galaxy populations.

NASA will release the images on July 12 at 10:30 am ET. And they sure are stunning. “What I’ve seen just moves me,” said Pam Melroy, a former astronaut and current NASA Deputy Administrator, during a news conference, “as a scientist, as an engineer, and as a person.”