Webb Highlights the Velvet-Like Lining of Dust Throughout This Star-Forming Region, Including Shells Around Actively Forming Stars

Jan 27, 2020
In mid-infrared light, the Pillars of Creation appear otherworldly. NASA’S James Webb Space Telescope has delivered a 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 the classic poem by Edgar Allan Poe.

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.

pillars of creation Webb.png
Pillars of Creation; JWST - MIRI image.

This is not an ethereal landscape of time-forgotten tombs. Nor are these soot-tinged fingers reaching out. These pillars, flush with gas and dust, enshroud stars that are slowly forming over many millennia. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has snapped this eerie, extremely dusty view of the Pillars of Creation in mid-infrared light – showing us a new view of a familiar landscape.

Why does mid-infrared light set such a somber, chilling mood in Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) image? Interstellar dust cloaks the scene. And while mid-infrared light specializes in detailing where dust is, the stars aren’t bright enough at these wavelengths to appear. Instead, these looming, leaden-hued pillars of gas and dust gleam at their edges, hinting at the activity within.

Thousands and thousands of stars have formed in this region. This is made plain when examining Webb’s recent Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) image. In MIRI’s view, the majority of the stars appear 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 cast off their dusty “cloaks.” These are the crimson orbs toward the fringes of the pillars. In contrast, the blue stars that dot the scene are aging, which means they have shed most of their layers of gas and dust.

Mid-infrared light excels at observing gas and dust in extreme detail. This is also unmistakable throughout the background. The densest areas of dust are the darkest shades of gray. The red region toward the top, which forms an uncanny V, like an owl with outstretched wings, is where the dust is diffuse and cooler. Notice that no background galaxies make an appearance – the interstellar medium in the densest part of the 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. With every observation, astronomers gain new information, and through their ongoing research 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.

hubble-eaglenebula-spitzer space telescope NASA .jpeg

The Pillars of Creation is set within the vast Eagle Nebula*, which lies 6,500 light-years away.

Claire Blome
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland
Christine Pulliam
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland

See: https://webbtelescope.org/contents/news-releases/2022/news-2022-053.html

* Eagle Nebula - M16 (Messier 16) is known by amateur astronomers and astrophotographers as the Eagle Nebula.

This well-observed area of the night sky is a large cloud of gas and dust where new stars are born.
When you take a look at the wispy glow of this nebula through an astronomical telescope or binoculars, you are witnessing a stellar object that is approximately 7000 light-years away.

The newborn stars in the Eagle Nebula are very hot and large, which illuminate M16’s hydrogen gas as seen in the Pillars of Creation, made famous by the Hubble Space Telescope.

These intense pillars are slowly evaporating under the intense radiation of the nearby massive, newborn stars.
The Pillars of Creation appear relatively small within the nebula itself, but in actuality, they are larger than our entire solar system.

eagle-nebula-location-milky way.jpeg
The location of the Eagle Nebula within the visible Milky Way.

 eagle nebulatrevor jones.jpeg
Eagle Nebula - photo by Trevor Jones

pillars of creation.jpg
Pillars of Creation - fineartamerica.com

JWST pillars.png

See: https://astrobackyard.com/m16-eagle-nebula/

The Pillars of Creation is one of the most productive regions of active star formation in the night sky. Stars are forming inside of the massive pillars of gas and dust, which are being sculpted by the powerful winds of the young, energetic stars within M16’s cluster.
Last edited:
  • Like
Reactions: write4u