June 10, 2023
James Webb Space Telescope Pillars of Creation

Haunted portrait: NASA’s Webb Space Telescope reveals creepy pillars of creation

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope mid-infrared view of the Pillars of Creation sets an eerie tone. Thousands of stars present in this region disappear – and seemingly endless layers of gas and dust become the focus. Credits: Science: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Image processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI), Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

Webb highlights the velvety coating of dust throughout 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 with the near-infrared light image in this short video tour. Thousands of stars have formed in this region, but interstellar dust covers the scene in infrared light, so most stars appear to be missing. A quick dissolve in the near-infrared image proves it’s still there, of course. While the mid-infrared light specializes in detailing where the dust is – and these pillars are full of dust and gas – many stars in this region are not dusty enough to show up at these wavelengths. Instead, the mid-infrared light reveals which of the young stars still have their dusty “mantles”. These are the crimson orbs towards the edges of the pillars. In contrast, the blue stars visible in the scene are aging, meaning they have already shed most of their layers of gas and dust. How vast is this landscape? This bright red star and its dusty shroud are larger than the size of our entire solar system.

Haunted Portrait: NASA Web Reveals Dust, Structure in Pillars of Creation

This image does not depict sooty fingers extending outward. Nor is it an ethereal landscape of time-forgotten tombs. These pillars, densely filled with gas and dust, surround stars that form slowly over many millennia. This eerie, extremely dusty view of the Pillars of Creation was captured in 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, cold mood in the Webb Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) image? Interstellar dust covers the scene. And while mid-infrared light specializes in detailing where the dust is, stars aren’t bright enough at these wavelengths to show up. Instead, these looming, leaden columns of gas and dust glow at their edges, hinting only at activity within.

In this region, thousands and thousands of stars have formed. This becomes abundantly clear when looking at Webb’s recent Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) image (see image below). However, in MIRI’s view, the majority of 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 ‘mantles’. These are the crimson orbs towards the edges of the pillars. Instead, the blue stars visible in the scene are aging. This means they have already expelled most of the layers of gas and dust.

Pillars of Creation (NIRCam Web Image)

The Pillars of Creation are launched in a kaleidoscope of color on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope with a near-infrared view. The pillars look like arches and cones jutting out of a desert landscape, but they are filled with translucent gas and dust, and are constantly changing. This is a region where young stars are forming – or have just burst out of 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 gases and dust in intricate detail. This is also undeniable throughout the background. Darker shades of gray are denser dust areas. The red area towards the top, which forms a strange V, like an owl with outstretched wings, is where the dust is diffused and cooler. Notice that no background galaxy is shown – the interstellar medium at its densest[{” 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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