It has skillfully photographed spooky spiral galaxies, the rings and moons of Neptune and the creepy-crawly Tarantula Nebula. But finally, the James Webb Space Telescope has turned its attention toward one of the most iconic celestial bodies in the universe: the Pillars of Creation.
Even NASA acknowledged the eager anticipation surrounding when Webb would at last capture the majestic arm of the star-forming Eagle Nebula: “This is what you’ve waited for,” the space agency tweeted.
Webb’s image, captured by its Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), shows the Pillars of Creation in strikingly crisp detail. The dust-filled plumes are a rusty orange-brown, like “arches and spires rising out of a desert landscape,” wrote NASA, which is collaborating with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) on the Webb project.
Bright stars sparkle against the deep blackish-blue backdrop of space. Crimson, lava-like shapes near the edges of the pillars show the glow of hydrogen molecules created when baby stars eject supersonic jets as they form. Bright red orbs floating within the mass of gas and dust, meanwhile, pinpoint the locations of newly born stars (the space agency recommends zooming in to see them).
As Isaac Schultz writes for Gizmodo, Webb’s capture makes it easy to see “Michelangelo’s famous Creation of Adam evoked by the reach of the massive pillars.”
Swiss astronomer Jean-Philippe Loys de Cheseaux first discovered the Eagle Nebula in 1745. But it wasn’t until 1995, when the Hubble Space Telescope photographed the nebula’s awe-inspiring, finger-like section and shared it with the masses, that the Pillars of Creation became famous. Hubble re-imaged the pillars in 2014, and, as NASA notes, many other observatories have turned their instruments toward the region, too.
As Dennis Overbye writes for the New York Times, the Eagle Nebula is “one of the most productive star factories in the Milky Way galaxy.” Situated some 6,500 light-years away from Earth, the vast stellar nursery spans roughly 70 light-years by 55 light-years.
The Pillars of Creation region, meanwhile, measures roughly 5 light-years long. Its three-dimensional pillars are made up of cosmic gas and dust that can appear semi-transparent when viewed at near-infrared wavelengths. Turbulence within the pillars creates dense regions known as knots, and when the knots achieve sufficient mass, they start to collapse, heat up and transform into young stars. Periodically, those young stars discharge jets that collide with the pillars’ dust and gas, creating wavy bow shocks similar to those made by a ship moving through water.
The region is “practically overflowing with stars,” per NASA, and Webb’s new image will help scientists get a more accurate count of those that have recently formed. They’ll also study the snapshot to get a better understanding of how much gas and dust exists in the region.
“Over time, they will begin to build a clearer understanding of how stars form and burst out of these dusty clouds over millions of years,” per NASA.