NASA’s Webb takes star-filled portrait of pillars of creation

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, above left. A new near-infrared light image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, right, helps us see through more of the dust in this star-forming region. The thick, dusty brown pillars are less opaque and many more red stars come into view. While the pillars of gas and dust appear darker and less penetrable in Hubble’s eyes, they appear more translucent in Webb’s. The background of this Hubble image is like a sunrise, starting in yellow at the bottom, moving to pale green and deeper blue at the top. These colors emphasize the thickness of the dust surrounding the pillars, obscuring many more stars in the total area. In contrast, the backlight in Webb’s image appears in shades of blue, highlighting the hydrogen atoms, revealing an abundance of stars scattered across the scene. By penetrating the dusty pillars, Webb also allows us to identify stars that have recently erupted or are about to erupt. Near infrared light can penetrate thick clouds of dust, allowing us to learn so much more about this incredible scene. Both visions show us what is happening locally. Although Hubble exposes many more thick layers of dust and Webb shows more of the stars, neither shows us the deeper universe. Dust blocks the view in Hubble’s image, but the interstellar medium plays an important role in Webb’s. It acts like thick smoke or fog, preventing us from peering into the deeper universe, where countless galaxies exist. The pillars form a small region within the Eagle Nebula, a huge star-forming region 6,500 light-years from Earth. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Hubble Heritage Project (STScI, AURA)

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has captured a lush, highly detailed landscape – the iconic Pillars of Creation – where new stars form in dense clouds of gas and dust. The three-dimensional pillars look like majestic rock formations, but are much more permeable. These columns are made up of cool interstellar gas and dust that sometimes appear semi-transparent in near-infrared light.

Webb’s new look at the Pillars of Creation, first made famous when they were imaged by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in 1995, will help researchers renew their models of star formation by identifying much more precise counts of newly formed stars, along with the quantities of gas and dust in the region. Over time, they will gain a better understanding of how stars form and erupt from these dusty clouds over millions of years.

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

What about those wavy lines that look like lava on the edges of some pillars? These are star emissions that are still forming in the gas and dust. Young stars periodically shoot out supersonic jets that collide with clouds of material, like these thick pillars. This also sometimes results in bow shocks, which can form undulating patterns like a boat does when moving through water. The crimson glow comes from the energetic hydrogen molecules that result from rays and shocks. This is clearly visible in the second and third pillars from above: the NIRCam image practically pulses with their activity. These young stars are estimated to be only a few hundred thousand years old.

While it appears that Webb can “pierce” the clouds with near-infrared light to reveal vast cosmic distances beyond the pillars, there are no galaxies in this view. Instead, a mixture of translucent gas and dust known as the interstellar medium in the densest part of our Milky Way galaxy’s disk blocks our view of the deeper universe.

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This scene was first imaged by Hubble in 1995 and revisited in 2014, but many other observatories have also gazed deep into this region. Each advanced instrument offers researchers new details about this region, which is practically overflowing with stars.

Iconic ‘Pillars of Creation’ Captured in New Webb Image

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