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NASA unveils list of 1st targets for James Webb Space Telescope

Our first glimpse through the eyes of NASA's massive new observatory will include nebulas and an alien world.

Although the long-awaited images won't be available until a live broadcast on Tuesday (July 12) at 10:30 a.m. EDT (1430 GMT), NASA has released a list of the targets that will appear in the first science-quality images released from the next-generation James Webb Space Telescope. Agency leaders have promised that these images will reveal an unprecedented look into some of the deepest views yet of the cosmos.

The targets, which NASA announced (opens in new tab) on Friday (July 8), were selected by an international committee of scientists from NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland, which manages the observatory.

Live updates: NASA's James Webb Space Telescope mission
Related: How the James Webb Space Telescope works in pictures

The James Webb Space Telescope is protect from the sun's and Earth's heat by a giant shield. (Image credit: Kevin Gill)

The James Webb Space Telescope's first targets include:

  • The Carina Nebula: One of the brightest nebulas — clouds of gas and dust — in the sky is about 7,600 light-years away from Earth in the southern constellation Carina, the Keel. The Carina Nebula is home to the well-known "Pillars of Destruction," long finger-like structures of cosmic gas and dust. 
  •  WASP-96 b: A giant and extremely hot exoplanet and the first known planet with an entirely cloudless atmosphere, WASP-96 b is also the first planet scientists have spotted with such a profoundly strong sodium signature. The planet's mass is quite similar to Saturn's, leading researchers to classify the world as a "hot Saturn." 
  •  Southern Ring Nebula (opens in new tab): The Southern Ring or "Eight Burst" nebula, located some 2,000 light-years from Earth, surrounds a dying star.
  •  Stephan's Quintet: This compact galaxy group is located in the constellation Pegasus and consists of five galaxies, four of which are closely grouped and expected to merge with one another. 
  •  SMACS J0723.3-7327 (opens in new tab): The James Webb Space Telescope will use the phenomenon known as gravitational lensing, in which much nearer foreground galaxies magnify and 'bend' light to obtain a deep-field view of extremely distant and faint galaxies.  

The James Webb Space Telescope prior to launch in 2020.  (Image credit: NASA/Chris Gunn)

The observatory recently completed calibration and testing on the third of its four scientific instruments, the Near-Infrared Spectrograph, or NIRSpec. Webb's other instruments include:

  • The Near Infrared Camera (NIRCAM), the telescope's primary tool for detecting light from early stars and galaxies. The camera features a coronograph, a tool that can block out the light emanating from stars in order to see the bodies around it.
  • The Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), a combination of a camera and a spectrograph that examines the mid-infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum. 
  • The Fine Guidance Sensor/Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (FGS/NIRISS), a tool that can help detect distant, early light sources and identify and analyze exoplanets. 

Between these four instruments, Webb can perform observations in 17 different modes.

NASA released a late-stage test image from the Fine Guidance Sensor on Wednesday (July 6) to give a sense of what to expect in the coming images.  

Stay up-to-the-minute on Tuesday with our James Webb Space Telescope live updates.

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Brett Tingley
Brett Tingley

Brett is a science and technology journalist who is curious about emerging concepts in spaceflight and aerospace, alternative launch concepts, anti-satellite technologies, and uncrewed systems. Brett's work has appeared on The War Zone at TheDrive.com, Popular Science, the History Channel, Science Discovery, and more. Brett obtained a Bachelor’s degree in English from Clemson University and a Master’s degree in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. In his free time, Brett is a working musician, a hobbyist electronics engineer and cosplayer, an avid LEGO fan, and enjoys hiking and camping throughout the Appalachian Mountains with his wife and two children.