The spiritual successor to the Hubble Observatory, James Webb is the most powerful space telescope ever to have been launched into space and brings with it vastly improved infrared resolution and sensitivity. This means that the telescope will be able to see objects that are too distant, faint and old for detection by Hubble — such as, for example, the cosmos’ earliest stars and galaxies. Recently, NASA completed the alignment of each of the telescope’s 18 primary mirror segments, which was undertaken by focusing on a bright star known by the unwieldy name of 2MASS J17554042+6551277.
The “non-announcement” of Webb’s first targets was made during a virtual briefing held by NASA two weeks ago.
Webb operations project scientist Dr Jane Rigby of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said: “The targets have been chosen for the super-secret first images that will be released.”
In fact, she added: “We’ve selected more than a full year of science. Those programs have been fully specified — the computer files that tell Webb how to take the data, we have all those in hand.
“We will be seeing back in time, to understand how galaxies like our own Milky Way formed, and then evolved over 13.7 billion years of cosmic time.”
According to Dr Rigby, the $10billion (£7.64billion) space telescope will also be used to study exoplanets — that is, worlds orbiting other stars — and determine their atmospheric compositions.
The astrophysicist added that NASA had received more than a thousand different research proposals from astronomers hailing from all over the world.
However, only “the best ones” were selected, Dr Rigby said.
Among which are projects looking for the light from the universe’s first stars and galaxies, which are thought to have formed mere hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang.
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NASA may be being coy about Webb’s first proper targets, but some clues are available that may help solve the mystery.
Astrophysicist Olivia Jones of the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, is involved in a dozen different observation campaigns that are planned for the Webb observatory’s first year.
She told Space.com that among the early targets will be the Large and Small Magellanic clouds — two of the Milky Way’s smaller satellite galaxies, which are thought to have a different chemical composition and evolution to that of our galaxy.
Dr Jones said: “The first data I think I’ll get is of one of the star formation regions in the Magellanic Clouds called NGC 346.”
This region, she explained, “is in the continuous viewing zone of the James Webb Space Telescope. So that means it can be observed at any point.”
Later this year, Dr Jones added, she expects Webb to focus on the Butterfly Nebula, sine 3,800 light-years from the Earth, which was formed when a Sun-like star reached the end of its life and began shedding its outer layers.
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During the March 16 press conference, Dr Rigby explained why — even though all of the telescope’s 18 primary mirror segments have been aligned — it will still take more than three more months for the first scientific investigations to begin.
During the alignment, she said, only one of Webb’s four cutting-edge instruments was in operation, specifically the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam).
Accordingly, NASA’s commissioning efforts will next focus on fully aligning the other three instruments with the mirror elements.
Dr Rigby said: “We now have to align the telescope to all four of the science instruments, so every one of these four instruments is getting a crisp image.”