() — The James Webb Space Telescope took a look at the dark side of the usually ethereal Pillars of Creation, located 6,500 light-years away in the Eagle Nebula.
Last week, the space observatory showed off a brilliant near-infrared view of the iconic towers, which are made of interstellar gas and dust and glow with young stars.
The three-dimensional structures are as massive as they look, measuring about 5 light-years across. (A light-year is equal to about 6 billion kilometers).
In Webb’s most recent image, which captured the iconic feature in mid-infrared light, the velvety gray dust evokes a writhing tangle of ghostly figures leaping through the cosmos. The stars are hidden by dust, but some of them pierce the darkness with red light.
It is a totally new perspective on the celestial scene first observed by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995 and again in 2014.
Infrared light is invisible to the human eye, making Webb our detective who can spy on aspects of the universe that are otherwise hidden. The new image, taken by Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI, captures more detail about the dust and the structure of the pillars.
Although thousands of stars have formed within the pillars and often shine as a central feature, their starlight cannot be detected in mid-infrared light. Instead, the MIRI instrument can only see the youngest stars that have not shed their dusty shell and that shine like rubies in the image. For their part, the blue stars in the scene represent the oldest stars that have broken away from the layers of gas and dust.
Webb’s mid-infrared capability can pick out details in the gas and dust of the pillars and their surrounding area. In the background of the image, regions of dense dust are depicted in gray, while the red, horizon-like region is where the cooler, more diffuse dust persists.
Unlike many of Webb’s recent images, there are no background galaxies that shine because their distant light is unable to pass through them.
The mid-infrared perspective of the Pillars of Creation will allow researchers to better understand the process of star formation over millions of years in this stellar nursery.
Other telescopes, such as the Spitzer Space Telescope, have observed the pillars at different wavelengths. Each new look at the iconic scene reveals new aspects, more detail, and precise measurement of the gas, dust, and stars within, providing a better understanding of this impressive region.