NASA officials have announced some of the first targets to be observed by the much-anticipated James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) following its launch atop an Ariane 5 rocket, which is slated for lift-off in October 2018. The initial observations cover the gamut of the JWST's scientific targets, from studies aimed at unraveling the secrets of galaxy formation, to gaining a better understanding of our home solar system via an in-depth study of select planets, moons, and asteroids.

The newly announced list of targets were selected under NASA's Guaranteed Time Observations (GTO) program, which allows scientists involved in the design and construction of the telescope's four main instruments to select some of the initial targets. Ten percent of the JWST's prime mission observing time has been devoted to GTO selections, all of which are likely to be completed in the first two years of the telescope's operational life.

Close to home, Jupiter's Great Red Spot, Saturn's atmosphere, Uranus' seasonal tilt and Neptune's south polar vortex are just a few of the heavenly features set to fall under the powerful gaze of the JWST.

Active geological phenomenon on the Saturnian moons Europa and Enceladus are also guaranteed to be studied and characterized. Comets and asteroids, the smaller inhabitants of the heliosphere, will also be analyzed by the cutting-edge observatory, in part for the insights that they can give up relating to the formative period of our solar system, but also in an effort to avoid a potentially devastating collision with Earth.

Jupiter as captured by the Hubble Space Telescope (Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center,  Space Telescope Science Institute)

The JWST will also be observing the characteristics of distant exoplanets. These studies will be undertaken using a variety of methods, including an observation of planets as they transit across the face of their parent star, from the perspective of the Earth. Transit studies will allow the instruments mounted aboard the JWST to determine whether an exoplanet boasts an atmosphere, and if so, to gain insights regarding its composition.

The existence and nature of an exoplanet's atmosphere is a deal-breaker regarding whether or not an alien world is capable of sustaining life. It is therefore unsurprising that the TRAPPIST-1 system, which is considered one of the most favorable prospects in the hunt for E.T., makes multiple celebrity appearances in the GTO target list.

TRAPPIST-1e, f and g – the three Earth-sized planets that orbit in the habitable zone of the red dwarf at the heart of the system – are all set to be observed, with astronomers hoping to make the first confirmed detection and characterization of an atmosphere around a potentially habitable planet.

The first observations of the next-generation telescope will investigate many facets of stellar physics and evolution. This will be achieved, in part, by observing protostars, and the protostellar disks from which stars like our Sun are known to have formed. The observatory will also shed light on how some of the universe's most massive stars came to form, as well as informing how stellar bodies are born at the extreme edge of our galaxy, where there is a far lower density of gas.

Artist's impression of the TRAPPIST-1 system(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

On an even grander scale, the GTO targets will task the JWST with observing numerous neighbouring and far flung galaxies and galaxy clusters. One such study will seek to understand the complex interactions between the Milky Way's nearest neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy, and four of its spheroidal galaxy companions.

These are just a few examples of over 2,100 that make up the initial GTO observations. These first targets will play a vital role in helping scientists understand the advanced capabilities of the JWST.

"From the very first galaxies after the Big Bang, to searching for chemical fingerprints of life on Enceladus, Europa, and exoplanets like TRAPPIST-1e, Webb will be looking at some incredible things in our universe," said Eric Smith, James Webb Space Telescope Director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "With over 2,100 initial observations planned, there is no limit to what we might discover with this incredible telescope."

Members of the broader scientific community will be called upon to submit their JWST proposals later this year.

Source: NASA

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