Webb captures the Pillars of Creation in all their infrared glory


By combining images of the iconic Pillars of Creation from two cameras aboard the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope, the Universe has been framed in its infrared glory.

Webb’s near-infrared image was merged with his mid-infrared image, illuminating this star-forming region in new detail, ESA reports.

The Pillars of Creation is a small region within the vast Eagle Nebula, located 6,500 light years away.

Myriads of stars spread across the scene. The stars appear mainly in near-infrared light, marking a contribution from Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). Near-infrared light also reveals thousands of newly formed stars: bright orange spheres found just outside of the dusty pillars.

In mid-infrared light, dust shows up full screen. Contributions from the Webb Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) are most evident in the layers of diffuse orange dust that cover the top of the image, relaxing in a V. The densest regions of dust are cast in deep indigo hues, obscuring our view of activities within the dense pillars.

The dust also forms the needle-like pillars that stretch from the bottom left to the top right. This is one of the reasons the region is teeming with stars: dust is an important ingredient in star formation. When knots of gas and dust with enough mass form in the pillars, they begin to collapse under their own gravitational pull, slowly heat up, and eventually form new stars. The newly formed stars are especially evident at the edges of the top two pillars: they’re practically bursting onto the scene.

At the top edge of the second pillar, wavy details in red hint at even more embedded stars. These are even younger and are quite active as they form. The lava-like regions capture their periodic ejections. As stars form, they periodically send out supersonic jets that can interact within clouds of material, such as these thick pillars of gas and dust. These young stars are estimated to be only a few hundred thousand years old and will continue to form for millions of years.

Almost everything seen in this scene is local. The distant universe is largely blocked from our view both by the interstellar medium, which is made up of scattered gas and dust located between stars, and by a thick dust lane in our Milky Way galaxy. As a result, the stars occupy a central place in Webb’s vision of the Pillars of Creation.