Ghostly figures emerge from Pillars of Creation in new Webb telescope image

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The James Webb Space Telescope has glimpsed the dark side of the usually ethereal Pillars of Creation, located 6,500 light-years away in the Eagle Nebula.

Last week, the space observatory showcased a scintillating near-infrared view of the iconic towers, which are made of interstellar dust and gas and glimmer with young stars.

The three dimensional structures are as massive as they appear, about 5 light-years in length. (A light-year is about 6 trillion miles.)

In Webb’s latest image, which captured the iconic feature in mid-infrared light, the gray and velvet-like dust resembles a twisted snarl of ghostly figures leaping out across the cosmos. The stars are hidden by the dust, but some of them pierce through the darkness in red light.

It’s an entirely new perspective on the heavenly scene first observed by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995 and again in 2014.

Infrared light is invisible to the human eye, making Webb our detective that can spy otherwise hidden aspects of the universe. The new image, taken by Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI, captures more detail about the dust and structure of the pillars.

Although thousands of stars have formed within the pillars and they usually gleam as the central feature, their starlight can’t be detected in mid-infrared light. Instead, MIRI only spies the youngest stars that haven’t shed their dusty shells and they shine like rubies in the image. Meanwhile, blue stars in the scene represent older stars that have shed layers of gas and dust.

Webb’s mid-infrared capability can pick out details in the gas and dust of the pillars and its surrounding area. In the background of the image, dense dust regions are depicted in gray, while the red, horizon-like region is where cooler and more diffuse dust lingers.

Unlike many of Webb’s recent images, no background galaxies gleam in the background because their distant light isn’t able to break through.

The mid-infrared perspective on the Pillars of Creation will allow researchers to better understand the process of star formation over millions of years in this stellar nursery.

Other telescopes, including the Spitzer Space Telescope, have observed the pillars across different wavelengths of light. Each new look at the iconic scene reveals new aspects, more details and precise measurement of the gas, dust and stars within, allowing for a better understanding of this breathtaking region.