(WHTM) — One of the most awe-inspiring images ever taken by the Hubble Telescope is a set of gas clouds dubbed the “Pillars of Creation.” The picture, taken on April 1, 1995, shows clouds of cool interstellar hydrogen gas and dust. Inside the columns, new stars are forming.
On Wednesday, the Webb telescope team released a new image of the Pillars, taken with the telescope’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). Infrared imaging penetrates the dust clouds in a way visible light cannot match, showing newly formed stars that were previously lost in the dust clouds shining in shades of pink, red, and crimson.
(This is as good a place as any to put in the usual reminder that these images have been color-shifted for viewing since infrared light is invisible to the human eye. Now back to the jaw-dropping imagery.)
This tightly cropped image is set within the vast “Eagle Nebula,” a star-forming region 6,500 light-years away in the constellation Serpens. It’s also called Messier 16 — M16 for short — because it’s the 16th object in Astronomer Charles Messier’s 18th-century catalog of “fuzzy” objects that aren’t comets. The nebula is about 70 by 55 light-years across. The Pillars of Creation are actually a small part of the nebula; this new image stretches only about a mere (mere?) 12 light-years.
The image even records shockwaves produced by still-forming stars. As the Webb telescope news release explains it:
“These are ejections from stars that are still forming within the gas and dust. Young stars periodically shoot out supersonic jets that collide with clouds of material, like these thick pillars. This sometimes also results in bow shocks, which can form wavy patterns like a boat does as it moves through water. The crimson glow comes from the energetic hydrogen molecules that result from jets and shocks. This is evident in the second and third pillars from the top…These young stars are estimated to be only a few hundred thousand years old.”
The new images will help researchers as they revise and revamp their models of star formation. They’ll be able to make far more precise counts of the newly formed stars along with more accurate measurements of the amount of gas and dust in the region. The new data will lead to a better understanding of how stars form in these dusty clouds over millions of years.