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The James Webb Space Telescope has captured a very detailed snapshot of the so-called Pillars of Creation, a view of three looming towers made of interstellar dust and gas studded with newly formed stars.
The area, which lies in the Eagle Nebula about 6,500 light-years from Earth, was previously captured by the Hubble Telescope in 1995, creating an image deemed “iconic” by spacewatchers.
The fact that new stars are brewing in the strange columns of cosmic dust and gas is what earned the area its name.
The Webb Telescope used its near-infrared camera, also called NIRCam, to give astronomers a new, closer look at the region, glimpsing some of the dusty plumes to reveal more infant stars glowing bright red.
“The newly formed protostars are the stealers of the scene,” read a press release from the European Space Agency. “When nodes with sufficient mass form in the pillars of gas and dust, they begin to collapse under their own gravity, slowly warm up, and eventually form new stars.”
Since Hubble first photographed the region in the 1990s, astronomers have returned to the scene several times. ESA’s William Herschel Telescope, for example, also captured an image of the distinctive star birth zone, and Hubble created its own follow-up image in 2014. Each new instrument that targets the region gives researchers a new preview, according to the ESA. .
“Along the edges of the pillars are wavy lines that look like lava. These are ejections of stars still in formation. Young stars periodically launch jets that can interact in clouds of matter, like these thick pillars of gas and dust,” according to a press release.
“This sometimes also results in bow shocks, which can form wavy patterns like a boat does as it moves through water,” it reads. “These young stars are estimated to be only a few hundred thousand years old and will continue to form for millions of years.”
Webb is operated by NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency. The $10 billion space observatory, launched last December, has enough fuel to continue taking unprecedented images of the cosmos for about 20 years.
Compared to the capabilities of other telescopes, the space observatory’s powerful and massive infrared light and mirror technology can uncover faint, distant galaxies that would otherwise be invisible – and Webb has the potential to improve our understanding of the origins of the universe.
Some of Webb’s first images, which have been on the air since July, highlighted the observatory’s abilities to reveal never-before-seen aspects of the cosmos, such as the birth of dust-shrouded stars.
However, astronomers are also using the telescope’s stable and accurate image quality to illuminate our own solar system, and so far it took images of Mars, Jupiter and Neptune.