The James Webb Space Telescope has taken a breathtaking look inside the “Pillars of Creation”, a spectacular formation of dust clouds made famous by its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope.
The image is not only breathtakingly beautiful, but also reveals cosmic processes never seen before with such clarity. Here’s what astronomers see behind the shimmering, colorful tapestry.
If you want to enjoy the magic of James Webb Space TelescopeFor the Pillars of Creation photo, you must download the original image from the website of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, which manages the mission’s science operations. It is not a small file. At around 150 megabytes, this could clog your internet downlink for a while. Then zoom in on the darker regions at the top of the pillars. Zoom in a bit more, until you see red dots appear. There are dozens of them. The smaller ones are just simple red spots. Others are somewhat larger, resembling flowers with yellow centers surrounded by six red petals, and sometimes with Webb’s snowflake-like refraction patterns.
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A star is born …
These floral formations were born stars, some of them only a few hundred thousand years old, the creation inside the Pillars of Creation revealed for the first time. For Webb’s predecessor, the The Hubble Space Telescopewho observes the universe primarily in visible light (wavelengths that the human eye can see), these pillars were impenetrable and ominous dark formations rising from the Eagle Nebulaa cloudy cluster of stars in the constellation Serpens less than 6,000 Light years far from Earth. But Webb, with his heat-detecting infrared gaze, peered into the darkness to reveal just how much light in the universe is being born.
“The most interesting thing about this image is that it actually shows us star formation in progress,” Anton Koekemoer, research astronomer at STScI, told Space.com.
Koekemoer assembled this stunning image from raw data taken by Webb’s powerful NIRCam camera. Amazing images of the universe are daily bread for Koekemoer, who previously worked on processing images from the Hubble Space Telescope. Still, the astronomer admits that the texture, level of detail and amount of scientific information contained in Webb’s photographs astonishes him himself.
“I’m amazed at how well Webb can see in dust and gas that’s completely dark with Hubble,” Koekemoer said. “With Hubble, you don’t see any detail. But Webb, with his infrared vision, can get right into those regions and see the stars forming inside those dusty pillars. It’s extremely exciting.”
… cold dark dust
Professor Derek Ward-Thompson shares Koekemoer’s enthusiasm. A veteran astronomer and head of the School of Natural Sciences at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK, Ward-Thompson has published several scientific papers on the Pillars of Creation over the years, including a few on the powerful fields magnets that hold the formation. together. Still, he says, his first thought upon seeing Webb’s first image of his favorite cosmic hydrogen cloud was rather unscientific.
“I just thought ‘Wow,'” Ward-Thompson told Space.com. “It really made me realize how much better the James Webb Space Telescope is going to be than Hubble, which can only see the outside. It also provides much better detail, much higher resolution.”
Webb’s images, Ward-Thompson said, provide a unique window into the dark, icy clouds where stellar embryos are incubated from hydrogen-rich dust. For the first time, astronomers can not only theorize about this process, but also study it in dozens of examples of varying sizes and brightness levels.
“I’m sure Webb’s images will advance our understanding of star formation and, therefore, where our own sun came from,” Ward-Thompson said.
The red dots visible in Webb’s images are protostars, cocoons of dust and gas so dense they are collapsing under the weight of their own. gravity. As the clouds collapse, they form spinning balls, which will eventually become so dense that the hydrogen atoms in their cores will begin to fuse together in the process of nuclear fusion, causing glowing the stars.
The protostars Webb sees aren’t quite there yet, only beginning to glow in infrared light as they warm above the coldness of the surrounding cloud, which is no hotter than minus 390 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 200 degrees Celsius), Ward-Thompson said.
“These young stars we see in the image aren’t burning hydrogen yet,” Ward-Thompson said. “But gradually, as more and more matter falls, the medium becomes denser and denser, then suddenly it becomes so dense that the hydrogen combustion ignites, then suddenly their temperature climbs to about 2 million degrees Celsius. [35 million degrees F].”
In some of the larger bright red spots in the image, several stars are bursting out at once. Elsewhere, their warmth has yet to seep through the surrounding dust.
The Pillars of Creation is one of the closest active star forming regions to Earth, which means that in combination with Webb’s imaging powers, the site offers the best opportunity to study the star-forming process, Ward-Thompson said.
Each of those red dots that you can only see when zooming into the image covers an area larger than our solar system. The entire image, 15,000 pixels wide, captures an area about 8 to 9 light-years in diameter.
“You can solve things that are roughly the size of our solar system in the picture,” Koekemoer said. “If there were individual planets like Jupiter, you couldn’t solve them.”
The image, which Koekemoer assembled from data taken by NIRCam in six different filters, shows the pillars in different colors than they would appear to the human eye. The only wavelength in the image that the human eye would detect is that of the color red, which is shown as blue in the image
“The yellowish, greenish, and eventually orange and red colors go to mid-infrared wavelengths,” Koekemoer said. “The longest wavelengths in this image are six times longer than what the human eye could see.”
With each color, a different component of the physical processes taking place within the stunning nebula appears. The bluish wisps of gas and dust that emanate like thin veils from the edges of the nebula are clouds of ionized hydrogen – electrons of hydrogen extracted from the cooler atomic hydrogen forming the dark, dense clouds by intense ultraviolet light from nearby massive stars.
The physics behind the pillars
With Webb’s ability to reveal the structure of dust clouds with unprecedented nuance and texture, astronomers will also be able to study the processes that sculpted the towering clouds over millions of years.
“The material that the pillars are made of is what we call the interstellar medium, the medium between stars,” Ward-Thompson said. “It becomes more transparent the further you go [infrared] wavelengths. The Hubble images only told us where the material was, but Webb now shows us where it’s thickest and where it’s thinnest. It’s almost like taking an X-ray of a human being.”
Astronomers know that the pillars are not a stable cosmic sculpture but rather an ever-changing flow of matter, similar to the ever-changing surface of a sandy beach. What shapes the pillars are powerful stellar winds emanating from a cluster of large stars, which is not visible in this image, Ward-Thompson said. Powerful cosmic magnetic fields hold the clouds together, protecting them from scattering by stellar winds. Yet millions of years from now, the Pillars will no longer resemble the iconic images we see today.
For Webb, the pillars are just the start, giving just a glimpse of what the $10 billion telescope can accomplish, Koekemoer said.
“Everyone in the astronomy community is very excited about what the future holds for Webb,” Koekemoer said. “I think there will be many more observations to come that will tell us even more about how stars and galaxies form.”
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