First science targets of NASA’s Webb telescope announced
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 the 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.
Webb will be able to see into the distant universe, beyond what Hubble can detect. Galaxy clusters are of particular interest because a cluster’s gravity can magnify light from more distant background galaxies. DD-ERS observations will study regions already investigated by Hubble, giving scientists new insights into these clusters of galaxies.
Within our own Solar System, astronomers plan to use use the JWST to observe Jupiter, its faint rings, and its moons Io and Ganymede to see if they can observe fine details against the bright background of Jupiter.
“We will see if we can image the rings and get rid of the scattered light from Jupiter, which pushes the telescope’s limits and really tests the capabilities of JWST,” said Imke de Pater, an IC Berkeley professor of astronomy who is leading the team observing Jupiter.
Over 100 proposals for DD-ERS observations were submitted in August 2017. From those, 13 programs requesting a total of 460 hours of telescope time were selected after review by panels of subject matter experts and the STScI director.
Video courtesy of NASA
Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.