JWST: An Impressive List of Priorities

Image (Credit): Stephan’s Quintet, representing a grouping of five galaxies, as captured by the JWST. (NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI)

I think we are all eager for more amazing photos from the James Webb Space Telescope, but we need to remember that the space telescope has a long list of priorities and these were not simply random images. An international committee with representatives from NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) decided on the future work of the space telescope.

The committee has shared these five missions represented by the images already released to the public, indicating the JWST has been pretty busy already:

  • Carina Nebula: The Carina Nebula is one of the largest and brightest nebulae in the sky, located approximately 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 larger than the Sun.
  • WASP-96b (spectrum): WASP-96b is a giant planet outside our solar system, composed mainly of gas. The planet, located nearly 1,150 light-years from Earth, orbits its star every 3.4 days. It has 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 in diameter and is located approximately 2,000 light-years away from Earth.
  • Stephan’s Quintet: About 290 million light-years away, Stephan’s Quintet is located 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 foreground galaxy clusters magnify and distort the light of objects behind them, permitting a deep field view into both the extremely distant and intrinsically faint galaxy populations.

So what else is planned? NASA believes the JWST can stay in operation for the next 5 to 10 years, so it has a fair amount of time to allocate to scientists. This link takes you to the 266 approved projects for the telescope’s first year, representing approximately 6,000 hours of JWST prime time and up to 1,231 hours of parallel time. For instance, during the first year you have “Exoplanets and Disks” projects such as:

  • Icy Kuiper Belts in Exoplanetary Systems;
  • Unlocking the Mysteries of the Archetype Sub-Neptune GJ1214b with a Full-Orbit Phase Curve;
  • A Search for the Giant Planets that Drive White Dwarf Accretion;
  • Tell Me How I’m Supposed To Breathe With No Air: Measuring the Prevalence and Diversity of M-Dwarf Planet Atmospheres; and
  • Diamonds are Forever: Probing the Carbon Budget and Formation History of the Ultra-Puffy Hot Jupiter WASP-127b.

That is just a sample, but you can see from some of that titles that the scientists are having fun. Expect hundreds of new discoveries this year resulting from these observations.