The Webb Space Telescope takes an incredible star-filled picture of the Pillars of Creation

Near infrared light reveals large constellations of constituent stars, many of which are still surrounded by dust

Pillars of Creation (Webb NIRCam Image)

The Pillars of Creation are set off in a kaleidoscope of color in NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope’s near-infrared-light view. The pillars look like arches and spires rising out of a desert landscape, but are filled with semi-transparent gas and dust, and ever-changing. This is a region where young stars are forming – or have barely burst from their dusty cocoons as they continue to form. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI; Joseph DePasquale (STScI), Anton M. Koekemoer (STScI), Alyssa Pagan (STScI).

NASA’s Webb Takes Star-Filled Portrait of Pillars of Creation

In exquisite detail, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has captured a lush, intricate landscape – the iconic Pillars of Creation. This is a region where new stars are forming within dense clouds of gas and dust. The three-dimensional pillars resemble majestic rock formations, but are far more permeable. These columns are made up of cool interstellar gas and dust that appear – at times – semi-transparent in near-infrared light.

Webb’s new view of the Pillars of Creation, which were first made famous when imaged by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in 1995, will help astronomers revamp their models of star formation by identifying far more precise counts of newly formed stars, along with the quantities of gas and dust in the region. Over time, they will begin to build a clearer understanding of how stars form and burst out of these dusty clouds over millions of years.

Pillars of Creation (Hubble and Webb Images)

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope made the Pillars of Creation famous with its first image in 1995, but revisited the scene in 2014 to reveal a sharper, wider view in visible light, shown above at left. A new, near-infrared-light view from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, at right, helps us peer through more of the dust in this star-forming region. The thick, dusty brown pillars are no longer as opaque and many more red stars that are still forming come into view. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI; Joseph DePasquale (STScI), Anton M. Koekemoer (STScI), Alyssa Pagan (STScI).

Newly formed stars are the scene-stealers in this stunning image from Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). These are the bright red orbs that typically have diffraction spikes and lie outside one of the dusty pillars. When knots with sufficient mass form within the pillars of gas and dust, they begin to collapse under their own gravity, slowly heat up, and eventually form new stars.

What about those wavy lines that look like lava at the edges of some pillars? These are ejections from stars that are still forming within the gas and dust. Young stars periodically shoot out supersonic jets that collide with clouds of material, like these thick pillars. This sometimes also results in bow shocks, which can form wavy patterns like a boat does as it moves through water. The crimson glow comes from the energetic hydrogen molecules that result from jets and shocks. This is evident in the second and third pillars from the top – the NIRCam image is practically pulsing with their activity. These young stars are estimated to be only a few hundred thousand years old.

Take a video tour of Webb’s near infrared view of the Pillars of Creation. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI; Joseph DePasquale (STScI), Anton M. Coquemore (STScI), Alyssa Pagan (STScI); Daniel Kirchenblatt (STScI).

Although near-infrared light may appear to have allowed the Webb to “penetrate” the clouds to reveal great cosmic distances behind the plumes, there are no galaxies in this view. Instead, a mixture of transparent gas and dust known as the interstellar medium in the densest part of the disk of our Milky Way obscures our view of the innermost universe. (The interstellar medium is the dispersed gas and dust between the stars of the galaxy. It is mainly composed of hydrogen atoms, molecules, and solid dust particles.)

This scene was first photographed by Hubble in 1995 and revisited in 2014, but many other observatories have been staring deep into this area. Each advanced tool offers investigators new details about this region, which is practically overflowing with stars.

This cropped image is tightly placed inside the vast Eagle Nebula, which is 6,500 light-years away.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the most powerful space telescope ever created and the most prominent space science observatory in the world. It will solve the mysteries of our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and explore the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency).

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