Science

NASA names first five targets for Web images

On Friday, NASA continued to build hype for next week’s image release from the Webb Space Telescope by announcing five objects in the first cache of images. Some targets are exactly what you’d expect, given that scientists have said they want to use binoculars to image, while a couple have been chosen because they’ll produce some spectacular views.

The target list also shows NASA’s ideas on how it can get to the informational data as quickly as possible. We’ll give a little background on each of the goals below.

WASP-96B: One of Webb’s most exciting features is its ability to analyze the composition of exoplanets’ atmospheres. When a planet passes between its host star and Earth, some of the star’s light will pass through its atmosphere, allowing the material in the atmosphere to absorb specific wavelengths of the star’s light. This signal is small because only a small fraction of the star’s light will pass through the atmosphere, so it usually takes months to get a good signal.

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

Carina Nebula: It will probably be a “just pretend” image. The Carina Nebula is a giant cloud of gas that is lit by the giant stars that form 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 major explosion about 175 years ago that it formed a nebula within the Carina Nebula.

This image will look great. And there’s potentially interesting science to be done here. Webb should have the resolution to work out the smaller-scale structures within the nebula and perhaps even determine the flow of gas based on changes in the spectrum due to red- and blue-shifting in certain regions. Finally, Webb may be able to detect some interesting molecules in the cooler regions of the nebula. But I suspect it will take some time before anyone pays attention to the science to come down to the bewildering aspects of the image.

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