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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.