NASA's James Webb Space Telescope hasn't even reached the launch pad and it's already getting its first job orders. The internationally-developed, multi-billion-dollar instrument, which is scheduled to lift off atop an Ariane 5 rocket from the Kourou spaceport in 2019, has been assigned 13 "early release" programs designed to study a wide variety of phenomena. Ranging from observations of Jupiter to the formations of galaxies in the early Universe, the programs will show off Webb's capabilities and guide later research.
Setting out the primary goals of a space mission is a routine step, but the announcement of Webb's first studies is unusual in that the data gathered by the unmanned telescope will be released to the scientific community immediately through the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) Director's Discretionary Early Release Science (DD-ERS) initiative. The reason is to demonstrate the unit's full capabilities and help scientists better plan future observations to use the telescope to its full potential.
The 13 programs, which were chosen by a competitive peer-review selection process of over 100 proposals, will use all four of Webb's science instruments for the first 460 work hours of observation time and will take about five months to complete. The targets include a study of supermassive black holes, the detection of the earliest galaxies as a way of better understanding the formation of the Universe, looking at galaxies that are receding away from Earth so fast that their light has shifted into the far infrared, the spectra of quasars, imaging Jupiter-sized exoplanets like WASP-39b and WASP-43b, and observations of Jupiter and its moons.
Built and operated as an international partnership between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency, Webb is designed for a mission that will last a minimum of five years, though extensions are almost certain if the money is available. The replacement for the revolutionary Hubble Space Telescope has a 6.5-m (24-ft) primary mirror made of 18 segments that dwarfs Hubble 2.4-m (7.9-ft) mirror. It can also outperform the Infrared Space Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope in infrared observations.
NASA says that DD-ERS observations will target regions of the sky previously surveyed by Hubble's Frontier Fields program. However, because Webb must be protected against sunlight, it can only observe certain regions at certain times of the year.
"It is exciting to see the engagement of the astronomical community in designing and proposing what will be the first scientific programs for the James Webb Space Telescope," says Alvaro Gimenez, ESA Director of Science. "Webb will revolutionize our understanding of the Universe and the results that will come out from these early observations will mark the beginning of a thrilling new adventure in astronomy."