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

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NASA today released a list of celestial targets that will be revealed 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 our solar system.

JWST is NASA’s massive new deep space observatory that launched on Christmas Day 2021. With a large gold-plated mirror over 21 feet in diameter, the observatory is set to change the field of astrophysics by collecting light from the first stars and galaxies that formed just after the Big Bang. It is also designed to study objects throughout our universe with unparalleled accuracy, giving us insight into our distant solar system, planets beyond our cosmic neighborhood, asteroids, exotic stars in the deepest reaches of space, and more.

To get their very first images, JWST observed these targets and areas of space for 120 hours, collecting five days of data. Until now, we knew little about what the first JWST images would be, although we received some hints from NASA management. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Associate Administrator for Science, said that we will see light from the atmosphere of a planet outside our solar system, known as an exoplanet. And NASA administrator Bill Nelson said one image is “the deepest image of our universe ever taken.”

We can now explore these directions in deep space before we see them in full detail next week. (In the case of an exoplanet, we expect to see its spectrum, glimpses of light in its atmosphere.) The list of targets for this breakthrough moment was selected by an international panel of people from NASA, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency and the Space Telescope Science Institute, which oversees JWST operations and science.

Some of the targets we’ve seen before thanks to images taken by JWST’s predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope. But the JWST mirror is almost three times wider than Hubble’s; plus, JWST is about 1 million miles from Earth, while Hubble is in low Earth orbit. Compared to the Hubble images, the JWST images should be even more detailed.

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

The Carina Nebula. The Carina Nebula is one of the largest and brightest nebulae in the sky, located about 7,600 light-years away in the southern constellation Carina. Nebulae are stellar nurseries where stars form. The Carina Nebula is home to many massive stars, several times the size of the Sun.

WASP-96 b (spectrum). WASP-96 b is a giant planet outside our solar system, composed mostly of gas. The planet, located at a distance of almost 1150 light-years from Earth, revolves around its star every 3.4 days. It has about half the mass of Jupiter and was announced in 2014.

Nebula South Rim. The southern ring, or Eight Bang Nebula, is a planetary nebula, an expanding cloud of gas surrounding a dying star. It is almost half a light year in diameter and is located about 2,000 light years from Earth.

Stephen’s Quintet: Stephen’s Quintet lies about 290 million light-years away in the constellation Pegasus. This is notable because it is the first compact group of galaxies, discovered in 1787. Four of the five galaxies in the quintet are locked in a cosmic dance of repeated close encounters.

SMAX 0723: Massive clusters of galaxies in the foreground magnify and distort the light of objects behind them, allowing for a deep field of view of both extremely distant and inherently faint populations of galaxies.

NASA is set to release the images July 12 at 10:30 am ET. And they are sure to take your breath away. “What I saw just touched me,” Pam Melroy, a former astronaut and current NASA Associate Administrator, said at a press conference, “as a scientist, as an engineer, and as a person.”

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