GREENBELT, Md. — If you’re looking for a breathtaking photo of starry skies, look no further. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has taken a new picture of the amazing “Pillars of Creation.” The landscape lives up to its name — it’s the site where new stars are born from clouds of gas and dust. The telescope captured the image in the Eagle Nebula, about 6,500 light years away from Earth.
At first glance, you would think the Pillars of Creation were a magical rock formation, but the new image brings a more in-depth and higher quality view since the last time it was photographed in 1995 and then again in 2014 by the Hubble Space Telescope. One of the new observations is that the rock-like shapes are more permeable.
The columns are a combination of interstellar gas and dust that can appear semi-transparent depending on the lighting. The updated image and greater visibility of the phenomenon will help astronomers create more accurate models of star formation. Additionally, the updated models will help with more precise counts of newly formed stars and the quantity of gas and dust in the region.
What can James Webb see that Hubble can’t?
Another visible detail that wasn’t seen as well in the Hubble telescope images are the newly formed stars. Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera captured bright red orbs with diffraction spikes floating outside of the dusty pillars. The image tells a story of knots with mass forming within the pillars of gas and dust. Once they reach a sufficient mass, the knot collapses under its own weight before slowly heating up and eventually coming together to form new stars.
If you scan the edges of the pillars, you might notice wavy lines that look like lava. Rest assured, there’s no lava in space. Rather, they are the scraps left behind from stars still forming within the gas and dust. The youngest stars in the photo are estimated to be a few hundred thousand years-old. They occasionally spew out supersonic jets that crash into clouds of material, like these thick pillars. The collision causes bow shocks, similar to the wavy patterns you’ll see from a boat moving in water. The crimson hue that coats these ejections is from energetic hydrogen molecules coming from the jet and shocks.
Near-infrared lighting allowed the Webb telescope to peer past the clouds and into the cosmos beyond the pillars. While there were no galaxies to be seen, NASA astronomers did observe a mix of translucent gas and dust called the interstellar medium in the densest part of the Milky Way galaxy.