NASA’s Webb Space Telescope Reveals Creation’s Cold Pillars

James Webb Space Telescope Pillars of Creation
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James Webb Space Telescope Pillars of Creation

The mid-infrared view of the Pillars of Genesis from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is awe-inspiring. The thousands of stars present in this region disappear and the seemingly endless layers of gas and dust become the central part. Credit: Science: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Image Processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI), Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

Webb highlights the velvety Lining of Dust in the Star-Forming Region, including the shells around Actively Forming Stars.

As seen here, the Pillars of Creation appear otherworldly in mid-infrared light.[{” attribute=””>NASA’S James Webb Space Telescope has captured an incredible scene that is large and lofty – and appears lit by flickering lanterns. A “ghost” haunts the crag in the lower left, a gargoyle-like shape snarls toward the middle of the frame, and a dark horse’s head charges out of the edge of the second pillar. The creepiest of all? Newly formed stars take on the appearance of protruding, bloodshot eyes. And in the background, dust dances like heavy, ancient curtains being pulled shut. Here, there is no raven to whisper, “Nevermore,” to harken to the classic Edgar Allan Poe poem.

Instead, dust in Webb’s image is like the dawn. It is an essential ingredient for star formation. Though cloaked, these pillars are bursting with activity. Newly forming stars hide within these dark gray chambers, and others, like red rubies, have jumped into view. Over time, Webb’s mid-infrared image will allow researchers to deeply explore the gas and dust in this region, and more precisely model how stars form over millions of years.

Compare a mid-infrared light image of the Pillars of Genesis with its near-infrared light image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope in this short video tour. Thousands of stars formed in this region, but interstellar dust obscures the scene in mid-infrared light, so most of the stars appear to have disappeared. Their rapid fading into the near-infrared proves they are still there. While mid-infrared light specializes in detailing where the dust is—and these columns are bathed in dust and gas—many stars in this region are not dusty enough to be visible at these wavelengths. Instead, the mid-infrared light shows which of the young stars still have dusty “fountains”. These are dark red balls towards the edges of the poles. In contrast, the blue stars that show the scene are aging, meaning they have already shed most of their layers of gas and dust. How wide is this landscape? This bright red star and its dusty mantle are larger than our entire solar system.

Surprising Portrait: NASA’s Webby Reveals Dust and Structure in the Pillars of Creation

This picture does not depict extended sooty fingers. Nor is it an ethereal landscape of time-forgotten tombs. Densely packed with gas and dust, these columns surround stars that form slowly over millennia. This eerie, extremely dusty view of the Pillars of Genesis was captured in mid-infrared light by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. It reveals a chilling new view of a familiar landscape.

Why does mid-infrared light create such a gloomy, chilly mood in Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) image? Interstellar dust covers the scene. Although mid-infrared light specializes in detailing where the dust is, the stars are not bright enough to be seen at these wavelengths. Instead, these prominent, lead-colored columns of gas and dust glow at their edges, hinting only at the activity within.

Thousands and thousands of stars have formed in this region. This is evident when examining Webb’s recent research Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) image (see image below). However, according to MIRI, most of the stars appear to be missing. Why? Many newly formed stars are no longer surrounded by enough dust to be detected in mid-infrared light. Instead, MIRI observes young stars that have not yet shed their dusty “cloaks”. These are dark red balls towards the edges of the poles. In contrast, the blue stars that mark the scene are aging. This means that they have already shed most of their layers of gas and dust.

Pillars of Creation (Webb NIRCam Image)

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

Mid-infrared light is particularly suitable for observing gas and dust in intricate detail. This is certainly the case in the background. The darkest shades of gray are dense areas of dust. The upward red region, which forms an unusual V like an owl with outstretched wings, is where the dust spreads and is cooler. Notice that no background galaxy is visible – it is interstellar medium in the dense part[{” attribute=””>Milky Way’s disk is too swollen with gas and dust to allow their distant light to penetrate.

How vast is this landscape? Trace the topmost pillar, landing on the bright red star jutting out of its lower edge like a broomstick. This star and its dusty shroud are larger than the size of our entire solar system.

This scene was first captured by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in 1995 and revisited in 2014, but many other observatories, like NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, have also gazed deeply at the Pillars of Creation. Astronomers gain new information with every observation. Through their ongoing research, they build a deeper understanding of this star-forming region. Each wavelength of light and advanced instrument delivers far more precise counts of the gas, dust, and stars, which inform researchers’ models of how stars form. As a result of the new MIRI image, astronomers now have higher resolution data in mid-infrared light than ever before, and will analyze its far more precise dust measurements to create a more complete three-dimensional landscape of this distant region.

The Pillars of Creation is set within the vast Eagle Nebula, which is located around 6,500 light-years away from Earth.

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

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