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NASA’s Webb Space Telescope Reveals Terrifying Pillars of Creation

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

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope’s mid-infrared view of the Pillars of Creation strikes a chilling tone. Thousands of stars that exist in this region are disappearing — and seemingly endless layers of gas and dust become the core. Credit: Science: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Image Processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI), Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

Webb highlights the velvety layer of dust in this 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 NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope mid-infrared image of the Pillars of Creation to its near-infrared light image in this short video tour. Thousands of stars have formed in this region, but interstellar dust bathes the scene in mid-infrared light, causing most stars to appear absent. Of course, a quick fade to the near-infrared image proves they’re still there. While mid-infrared light specializes in showing exactly where dust is — and these pillars are flush with dust and gas — many stars in this region aren’t dusty enough to show up at those wavelengths. Instead, mid-infrared light shows which of the young stars are still wearing their dusty ‘mantles’. These are the crimson orbs on the edges of the pillars. In contrast, the blue stars that dot the scene are aging, meaning they’ve already shed most of their layers of gas and dust. How big is this landscape? This bright red star and its dusty shell are larger than the size of our entire solar system.

Haunting portrait: NASA’s Webb reveals dust, structure in Pillars of Creation

This image does not show soot-stained fingers stretching out. Nor is it an ethereal landscape of time-forgotten tombs. Densely filled with gas and dust, these pillars envelop stars that are slowly forming over many millennia. This eerie, extremely dusty view of the Pillars of Creation was captured in mid-infrared light by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. It reveals a creepy new look at a familiar landscape.

Why does mid-infrared light create such a sombre, cool mood in Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) image? Interstellar dust shrouds the scene. And while mid-infrared light specializes in detailing dust, stars at these wavelengths aren’t bright enough to be visible. Instead, these towering, leaden columns of gas and dust glisten at their edges, hinting only at activity within.

Thousands and thousands of stars have formed in this region. This becomes particularly clear when examining Webb’s recent investigation Image from a near-infrared camera (NIRCam). (see picture 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 seen in mid-infrared light. Instead, MIRI observes young stars that have not yet shed their dusty “coats”. These are the crimson orbs on the edges of the pillars. In contrast, the blue stars that dot 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 highlighted in a kaleidoscope of colors in the near-infrared light view from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. The pillars look like arches and spiers rising out of a desert landscape, but are filled with semi-transparent gas and dust and are constantly 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).

Mid-infrared light is particularly good for observing gas and dust down to the smallest detail. This is also unmistakable throughout the background. The darkest shades of gray are the densest areas of dust. The red area up, forming an eerie V, like an owl with wings outstretched, is where the dust is dispersed and cooler. Note that no background galaxies appear – the interstellar medium in the densest part of the[{” 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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