NASA names top five targets for Webb images

NASA continued to build the hype for next week’s image release from the Webb Space Telescope on Friday by announcing the five objects in the first image cache. A few of the targets are exactly what you’d expect, given what the scientists said they wanted to use the telescope to image, while a few were likely chosen because they’ll produce fantastic visuals.

The target list also shows NASA’s thoughts on how it can get informative data as quickly as possible. We’ll provide some background on each of the targets below.

WASP-96b: One of Webb’s most interesting features is its ability to analyze the composition of exoplanet atmospheres. When a planet passes between its host star and Earth, some of the light from the star passes through its atmosphere, allowing materials in the atmosphere to absorb specific wavelengths in the starlight. This signal is tiny because only a small fraction of the star’s light will pass through the atmosphere, so it will usually take months of observations to get a good signal.

WASP-96 b allows us to get a good signal much faster, because it is a planet composed mainly of atmosphere. Although it is about half the mass of Jupiter, it is physically larger, indicating that it is mostly gas. It also has an orbital period of just 3.4 days, which means we can image its atmosphere twice a week. NASA will show the infrared spectrum of light that has passed through the atmosphere and will undoubtedly highlight the spectral signatures of molecules in the planet’s atmosphere.

The Carina Nebula: It will probably be a “just for showing” image. The Carina Nebula is an enormous cloud of gas illuminated by the massive stars forming within it. It’s home to the brightest star we’ve identified in the Milky Way, as well as Eta Carinae, my favorite candidate for “most likely to go supernova.” The star came so close to destroying itself in a massive eruption about 175 years ago that it formed a nebula in the Carina Nebula.

This image will be spectacular. And there is potentially interesting science to be done here. Webb should have the resolution to determine smaller-scale structures in the nebula and perhaps even determine the flow of gas in certain regions based on changes in the spectrum caused by redshift and blueshift. Finally, Webb might be able to detect some interesting molecules in the cooler areas of the nebula. But I suspect it will take some time to get rid of the awesome aspects of the image before anyone pays attention to the science.

Previous Conrad Los Angeles makes his downtown debut – NBC Los Angeles
Next NASA reveals cosmic targets in first JWST color images