Ashley Strickland, CNN
The James Webb Space Telescope has caught a glimpse of the dark side of the usually ethereal Pillar of Creation, located 6,500 light-years away in the Eagle Nebula.
Last week, the space observatory showcased a twinkling near-infrared view of the iconic tower, made of interstellar dust and gas and glowing with young stars.
The three-dimensional structure is as massive as it looks, measuring about 5 light-years in length. (A light year is about 6 trillion miles.)
In Webb’s latest image of the iconic feature in mid-infrared light, the gray, velvety dust resembles the twisting undulations of a ghostly figure soaring through space. but some of them pierce the darkness with red light.
This is an entirely new perspective on the celestial landscape first observed by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995 and 2014.
Infrared is invisible to the human eye, making Webb a detective who can spy on hidden aspects of the universe. New images taken by Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) capture details about the pillar’s dust and structure.
Thousands of stars form within the pillar and usually shine as a central feature, but their starlight is undetectable in mid-infrared light. Instead, MIRI spies on only the youngest stars that haven’t shed their dusty shells, shining like rubies in the image. Meanwhile, the blue stars in the scene represent older stars that have ejected layers of gas and dust.
Webb’s mid-infrared capability can find details in the gas and dust in and around the pillar. Areas of dense dust are depicted in gray in the background of the image, while areas like red horizontal lines are where cold, diffuse dust remains.
Unlike many of the web’s recent images, there are no glowing galaxies in the background, as distant light cannot break through.
A mid-infrared perspective on the creation pillars 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 in different wavelengths of light. Each new look at the iconic scene reveals a new facet, more detailed information and precise measurements of the gas, dust and stars within, enhancing our understanding of this breathtaking realm.
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