March 22, 2023
Haunted Portrait: Webb Reveals Dust and Structure in the Pillars of Creation

Haunted Portrait: Webb Reveals Dust and Structure in the Pillars of Creation

This is not an ethereal landscape of time-forgotten tombs. Not even those soot-stained fingers reach out. These pillars, flushed with gas and dust, “cap” stars that form slowly over many millennia. NASA/ESA/CSA’s James Webb Space Telescope captured this eerie, extremely dusty view of the Pillars of Creation in mid-infrared light — showing us a new view of a familiar landscape. Credit: NASA

Why does mid-infrared light cause 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 at activity within.

Thousands and thousands of stars have formed in this region. This becomes clear when examining Webb’s recent Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) image of this object. In MIRI’s view, most stars are missing. Why; Many newly formed stars are no longer surrounded by enough dust to be detected in mid-infrared light.

Thus, MIRI can only see those 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, meaning they have shed most of their layers of gas and dust.

Mid-infrared light excels at revealing gas and dust in exquisite detail. This is also undeniable throughout the background. The densest areas of dust are the darkest shades of gray. 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 galaxies are visible – the interstellar medium in the densest part of the Galactic disk is too swollen with gas and dust to allow their distant light to penetrate.

How vast is this landscape? Spot the topmost pillar, landing on the bright red star sticking out of its bottom edge like a broomstick. This star and its dusty shroud are larger than the size of our entire Solar System.

This scene was first imaged by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in 1995 and again in 2014, but many other world-class observatories have also looked deep into this region, such as ESA’s Herschel telescope. Each advanced instrument offers researchers tantalizing new details about this region, which is practically overflowing with stars.

With each observation, astronomers gain new information and through their continued research build a deeper understanding of this star-forming region. Each new wavelength of light newly imaged and each new instrument provides increasingly precise information about the gas, dust and stars, which informs researchers’ models of how stars form.

As a result of the new MIRI image, astronomers now have data in the mid-infrared light at a higher resolution than ever before, and will analyze the much more precise dust measurements to create a more complete 3D landscape of this distant region.

The pillars of creation are located within the vast Eagle Nebula, which is 6500 light years away.

NASA’s Webb takes a star-studded portrait of the pillars of creation

Provided by the European Space Agency

Reference: Haunted portrait: Webb reveals dust and structure in pillars of creation (2022, October 28) retrieved October 28, 2022 from creation.html

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