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The James Webb Space Telescope has observed the ethereal dark side of the normal Pillars of Creation, located 6,500 light-years away in the Eagle Nebula.
Last week, the space observatory revealed a brilliant near-infrared view of the iconic towers, which are made of interstellar dust and gas, and glow with young stars.
The three-dimensional structures are as massive as they look, about 5 light-years across. (A light-year is about 6 billion miles.)
In Webb’s latest image, which captured the iconic feature of mid-infrared light, the velvety gray dust looks like a swirling flurry of ghostly figures darting through the cosmos. The stars hide the dust, but some of them pierce the darkness with red light.
It’s a completely new view of the sky scene seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995 and again in 2014.
Infrared light is invisible to the human eye, making Webb our own detective who can spy on otherwise hidden aspects of the universe. The new image, taken by Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI, provides more detail about the dust and structure of the columns.
Although thousands of stars have formed within the columns and shine as central features, their starlight cannot be detected in the central infrared light. Instead, MIRI spies only the youngest stars that haven’t shed their dusty shells and shine like rubies in the image. Meanwhile, the blue stars in the scene represent older stars that have shed layers of gas and dust.
Webb’s mid-infrared capability can detect details of the plume and its surrounding gas and dust. In the background of the image, regions of dense dust are represented in gray, while the red, horizon-like region is cooler, more diffuse dust.
Unlike many of Webb’s recent images, no background galaxies shine in the background because their distant light cannot pass through.
The mid-infrared view of the Pillars of Creation will allow researchers to better understand the process of star formation over millions of years in this star nursery.
Other telescopes, including the Spitzer Space Telescope, have observed the pillars at different wavelengths of light. Each new look at the iconic scene reveals new aspects, more detail and precise measurements of the gas, dust and stars inside to better understand this amazing region.