Two astonishing new photos of the Pillars of Creation have emerged from NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, a large infrared telescope launched in 2021 after years of development. These photos portray a relatively small region of space within the Eagle Nebula, a star cluster in the constellation Serpens located approximately 6,500 light-years away from our planet Earth.
The Pillars of Creation were first photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995 and are named for their imagination- and awe-inspiring formations of space dust and gas from which brand-new, baby stars are born.
While the original 1995 first photograph used visible light, the James Webb images use two different wavelengths of infrared light: mid-infrared and near-infrared.
The Pillars of Creation Mid-Infrared Image
In this image, Webb's Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) depicts a darker, more haunting and cloudy scene by prominently capturing the dust and gas that form the Pillars of Creation's towering, finger-like shapes. Because stars generally don't emit a significant amount of mid-infrared light, this photo only shows two types of stars. Some of the stars emerging from the dust and gas clouds appear as red dots glowing along the edges of the pillars. These are the newer stars that are still surrounded by a cocoon of dust. Other stars in the photo have more of a blue tone and are older than the red stars and, therefore, are shrouded by much smaller amounts of dust and gas.
The Pillars of Creation Near-Infrared Image
The NIRCam image, on the other hand, uses near-infrared light. This image appears vastly different from the MIRI image in that it highlights the innumerable stars previously hidden from view. The NIRCam's photograph depicts many more stars than the earlier photos by using light wavelengths that pierce through the pillar's dust and gas clouds.
Thanks to this photo, we're now privy to even more splendid colors in the region while still being able to see the general outline and shape of the pillars. Additionally, the photograph reveals a distinction between areas with less dense dust and gas and areas where the gas and dust are so thick and dense that the camera's light couldn't cut all the way through.
Some of the stars depicted in the NIRCam image include protostars, which appear as large, brightly shining stars with up to eight diffraction spikes jetting out from their centers. In other areas within the photo, lava-like waves appear as something called "bow shocks," waves of energy that result from ejections shot out by new stars.
The Stars Still Hidden From View
With the vast differences between each of the photos of the Pillars of Creation, it's clear that we still have much to learn about these starry clouds and their formation. Even the "new" stars are hundreds of thousands of years old, but their life spans are nearly incomprehensible to humans, ultimately spanning millions of years. It's also apparent that layers of space gas are still blocking the view of much of the stars and galaxies that would otherwise appear in these images.
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