NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope’s latest images of the Pillars of Creation, better known to astronomers as M16 in the Eagle Nebula, are enough to leave most speechless. Hubble’s iconic first images of this star-forming region were so stunning at the time that they spawned a cottage industry of kitsch — from calendars to coffee cups.
But scientifically, the latest images released today by NASA show a close-up view of stars in full birth mode within these dusty towers of creation. For most, they remain beautiful images to admire.
However, for professional astronomers they offer a wealth of untold scientific data for years to come.
Many thousands of stars have formed in these Pillars of Creation, which are actually three giant columns of cold gas bathed in hot ultraviolet light from a cluster of young, massive stars, NASA says. Located in a small region of the Eagle Nebula, or M16, about 6,500 light-years away, the plumes, awash with gas and dust, surround stars that form slowly over many millennia, NASA notes.
In the latest images from the James Webb Space Telescope’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), many of the newly formed stars appear to be missing, NASA says. This is actually because many of these newly formed stars are simply no longer surrounded by enough dust to be detected in the mid-infrared spectrum, NASA notes.
This is because massive stars remove their birth environments of dust and gas through the emission of extreme ultraviolet radiation as well as strong stellar winds.
The finger-like shape of the pillars is produced by expanding bubbles of gas and dust, sculpted by evaporation caused by ionizing radiation. Stellar winds and a barrage of charged particles from the central star cluster above the pillars also destroy this region, NASA says.
Although astronomers have learned a lot about star formation in recent decades, the mechanisms that drive the production of lower-mass stars like our own G-type star are still not fully understood.
But with more powerful telescopes like Webb, theorists will better understand these processes. The Eagle Nebula is several thousand light-years away and so far has not revealed the details of its star formation as easily as the Orion Nebula, which is only 1300 light-years away and is the closest and best-studied star-forming region to Earth .
Although astronomers know that the brightest and most massive stars out there are short-lived and typically live on time scales of only a few million years, most stars in the universe appear to be lower-mass red dwarfs. These M-spectral-type stars can continue their lives as hydrogen-burning main-sequence stars for tens of billions of years.
The hope among researchers is that the data Webb produces will allow researchers to better understand the composition and dynamics of the dust found in this iconic region of the Eagle Nebula.
Over time, we will begin to understand more clearly how stars form and erupt from these dusty clouds over millions of years, the European Space Agency (ESA) reports.
Because supernovae are only produced by massive stars, our Sun probably got its start as part of an alluring but violent nebula that probably looked a lot like the Pillars of Creation.
Essentially, NASA’s Webb has given us exquisite snapshots of the kind of turbulence from which our own star must have emerged some 4.56 billion years ago.
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