The hits continue to be beamed back to Earth by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). This time, arriving to help celebrate Hallowe’en, data from the MIRI Mid-Infrared Instrument on JWST shows another view of the Pillars of Creation. Thousands of stars are embedded in these pillars, but many are “invisible” to MIRI.
In the latest image, the Pillars have a steel gray look. They almost look like cosmic tombstones instead of stellar birthplaces. Why is this? Mid-infrared light is an important part of the spectrum for astronomers interested in studying dust clouds. It reveals gas and dust in exquisite detail. The densest areas of dust in the pillars appear as the darkest shades of gray. The red V-shaped region towards the top is where the dust clouds are thinner and cooler.
At these wavelengths, MIRI is only able to “see” young stars that are still embedded in their cocoons of gas and dust. They glow a mysterious red—almost like the eyes of jack-o-lanterns—at the ends of the formations on the columns. Blue stars are larger ones that have exploded and eaten their birth clouds.
Remove all ads on Universe Today
Join our Patreon for just $3!
Get the ad-free experience of a lifetime
The Pillars of Creation in retrospect
This star birth region has a long history of observations. It is certainly visible to astronomers using backyard type telescopes. However, it takes the Hubble Space Telescope and now JWST to dig into the rich detail of this massive cloud. HST first examined it in 1995, using the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2. It returned 32 images, which were combined into a mosaic. The pillars are part of the Eagle Nebula. It is a diffuse emission nebula covering a region of space measuring approximately 70 x 55 light years. It is located about 6,500 light years away. The Pillars are part of the nebula, and some of its tiniest star births are larger than our solar system.
When the first HST image appeared, astronomers could see the places where stars were born and eat their gas clouds, but they couldn’t see INTO the clouds. These hungry star babies in their cocoons were called “evaporating gas globules” or eggs. They are found in other stellar nurseries, giving astronomers a good idea of how star birth progresses in dense clouds of gas and dust.
The Pillars of Creation have since been imaged by the Chandra X-ray Observatory (which found no X-ray sources associated with the newborn stars). The Spitzer Space Telescope also studied this region of space. He found evidence of hot gases suggesting a supernova explosion in the region. If it did, there is little evidence that the shock wave harmed the newborn stars or vaporized the rest of the cloud away.
JWST’s Looks at the Pillars
The latest steel gray look of the Pillars of Creation set against a glowing red and gray background isn’t JWST’s first rodeo with this area of space. Earlier in October, the scientific teams released an NIRCam (Near Infrared Camera) image. This view revealed many of the protostars that formed within these cosmic stalactites in space. Thanks to NIRCam, we can peer through the gas and dust, lifting the veil on the birth of stars.
Protostars as seen by NIRCam are those with multiple diffraction peaks. They are still accumulating mass, and when they are full, they will collapse under their own gravity and slowly heat up. When they are hot and massive enough, fusion will ignite in their cores. That’s when they become stars. The young stars in these pillars are probably only a few hundred thousand years old and will not have finished forming for millions of years.
The process of stellar birth often creates jets that are ejected from newborn stars. These jets eat up the remaining natal cloud material. They sculpt the clouds, which is why the pillars look wavy and distorted.
Understanding star formation from JWST images
Both of these JWST images of the Pillars of Creation give astronomers a more detailed look at star formation. While scientists have a pretty good overall view of how stars form, the intricate details are what they need. All this data about star birth will help build better models of such an important process.
By examining populations of newborns like those in the Pillars and mapping the vast clouds of gas and dust in this region, they will add to the stock of knowledge about star birth. Images like these also give a good look at what our own region of space must have looked like about five billion years ago. It was then that our own Sun and its stellar siblings began to form from a similar kind of cloud of gas and dust.
For more information
Haunted portrait: Webb reveals dust and structure in Pillars of Creation
Pillars of Creation: Hubble and Web Images side by side
Eagle Nebula “Pillars of Creation”
#edition #Pillars #Creation #Webb