JWST Shows the Pillars of Creation in a Whole New Light

JWST Shows the Pillars of Creation in a Whole New Light

The James Webb Space Telescope continues to produce amazing images of the universe. Perhaps the most iconic image ever taken by a space telescope is the Pillars of Creation seen by Hubble, but it views everything in visible wavelengths. JWST is demonstrating just how much more can be discerned looking in the infrared.

Launched on December 25, 2021, JWST became operational in July and is busy producing spectacular images and data. The $10 billion, 6.5-meter (21.3-foot) diameter telescope is 1.5 million kilometers (1 million miles) away at the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange Point (SEL-2).

JWST, or simply Webb, is a joint project of NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency. It is operated by the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, MD. They jointly released this image today.

The Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula, 6,500 light years away, as seen by the NIRCam instrument on the James Webb Space Telescope. Credits: SCIENCE: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI. IMAGE PROCESSING: Joseph DePasquale (STScI), Anton M. Koekemoer (STScI), Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

They explain this region in the Eagle Nebula is where young stars are forming — the “bright red orbs that sometimes appear with eight diffraction spikes.” But the image may be deceptive.

“Although it may appear that near-infrared light has allowed Webb to ‘pierce through’ the background to reveal great cosmic distances beyond the pillars, the interstellar medium stands in the way, like a drawn curtain.

“This is also the reason why there are no distant galaxies in this view. This translucent layer of gas blocks our view of the deeper universe. Plus, dust is lit up by the collective light from the packed “party” of stars that have burst free from the pillars. It’s like standing in a well-lit room looking out a window – the interior light reflects on the pane, obscuring the scene outside and, in turn, illuminating the activity at the party inside.”

ESA posted a comparison of what can be seen by Hubble versus Webb with a succint explanation of why they are different, basically because Webb can see through the dust.

Two images of the Pillars of Creation, a star-forming region in space. At left, Hubble’s visible-light view shows darker pillars that rise from the bottom to the top of the screen, ending in three points. Webb’s near-infrared image at right shows the same pillars, but they are semi-opaque and rusty red-coloured. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI; J. DePasquale, A. Koekemoer, A. Pagan (STScI)

Like NASA, ESA points out that even the combined data from these two telescopes don’t tell the whole story.

“Although Hubble highlights many more thick layers of dust and Webb shows more of the stars, neither shows us the deeper universe. Dust blocks the view in Hubble’s image, but the interstellar medium plays a major role in Webb’s. It acts like thick smoke or fog, preventing us from peering into the deeper universe, where countless galaxies exist.”

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