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Astro Bob: 'Pillars of Creation' revealed in lush detail

NASA's Webb Space Telescope returns photos of the iconic towers of dust and gas where stars are born.

Pillars
In the James Webb Space Telescope’s near-infrared-light view, the Pillars of Creation inside the Eagle Nebula look like spires and arches of rock you might see rising from a desert landscape, but are filled with semi-transparent gas and dust, and ever changing. Within their wispy contours young stars are forming within dusty cocoons.
Contributed / Space Telescope Science Institute/NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Alyss
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Tucked within the Milky Way in the constellation Serpens is a small, glowing cloud of gas and dust called the Eagle Nebula . It consists of a central star cluster of bright, newly formed suns that illuminates a cloud of gas and dust. Even binoculars will show it from a dark sky.

Through a 10-inch amateur telescope, you can faintly glimpse several finger-like dust clouds shaped like an eagle silhouetted against the glowing gases. These are the "Pillars of Creation."

Hubble and Webb pillars
On the left is the famous Hubble image of the Pillars of Creation. Taken in visible light, the spires appear nearly opaque. In the Webb infrared-light photo, right, we see far more detail including many more stellar newborns. The nebula is located about 6,500 light-years away.
Contributed / Left: NASA, Jeff Hester, Paul Scowen (ASU); right: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI
Pillars full view
This is the full view Webb took of the star-forming pillars inside the Eagle Nebula.
Contributed / NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

They got their name when the Hubble Space Telescope took a jaw-dropping portrait of the nebula back in 1995. The pillars are immense towers carved out of the nebula's cold dust by high-energy radiation emitted by the roughly 8,000 young stars in the cluster. The claw-like extensions are home to hundreds of new stars incubating within their dusty folds. Evoking the act of creation, the photo quickly became one of Hubble's most famous.

In visible light the pillars hide the newly forming suns, but infrared light shines through the dust, revealing stars forming within their nooks and crannies. Compare the views through the Hubble and Webb. The pillars are nearly opaque in visible light but divulge their contents under Webb's gaze. Here's a higher-resolution image you can explore.

Newly formed stars
Dozens of embryonic stars glow red in this cropped view of the topmost pillar.
Contributed / Space Telescope Science Institut/NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, and Alyss

Many of the brightest stars in the photo have burst free of the pillars and shine unimpeded, while others glow like hot, red coals inside them. When knots of material with sufficient mass gather within the nebula they begin to collapse under their own gravity, slowly heat up, and eventually form new stars. Astronomers study regions like the Eagle Nebula to refine our knowledge of star formation in general and the sun in particular.

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The wavy ripples that look like lava at the edges of some of the pillars were sculpted by the fitful younglings. Newly forming stars periodically shoot out supersonic jets of gas and dust that collide with clouds in the neighborhood and create bow shocks — wavy patterns like a boat makes as it moves through water.

Glowing hydrogen
Energized hydrogen atoms luminesce red in this close up of the second pillar from the top. Curlicues and ripples in the dust are formed by shock waves from newborn stars blasting material into space.
Contributed / Space Telescope Science Institute/NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Alyss

Those same jets and shocks energize clouds of hydrogen molecules to glow red. You can see a large patch in each of the middle and lower pillars.

Astronomers estimate that all these young, half-hidden stars are only a few hundred thousand years old. In good time, they'll clear away the dust that enshrouds them and shine brightly enough for our distant descendants to see through telescopes of the future.

Read more from Astro Bob
Our February event calendar highlights Comet ZTF and Mars, Venus and Jupiter at dusk and a stellar reminder of spring.

Related Topics: SCIENCE AND NATURE
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer and retired photographer for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at nightsky55@gmail.com.
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