NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has been the gift that keeps on giving, releasing one jaw-dropping image after another since the summer. Today, NASA released a stunning near-infrared camera image of the iconic “Pillars of Creation” in the Eagle Nebula, some 7,000 light-years away.
“I’ve been studying the Eagle Nebula since the mid-1990s, trying to see ‘inside’ the light-years long pillars that Hubble showed, searching for young stars inside them,” Mark McCaughrean of the European Space Agency told BBC News. “I always knew that when James Webb took pictures of it, they would be stunning. And so they are.”
The James Webb Space Telescope launched in December 2021 and promptly began capturing images. First, there was the deep field image of the universe released in July. This was followed by images of exoplanet atmospheres, the Southern Ring Nebula, a cluster of interacting galaxies called Stephan’s Quintet, and the Carina Nebula, a star-forming region about 7,600 light-years away. These images reportedly brought astronomers to tears.
In August, we received gorgeous images of Jupiter, including the auroras at both poles that result from Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field, as well as its thin rings and two of the gas giant’s small moons. This was followed a month later by a mosaic image showing a panorama of star formation stretching across a staggering 340 light-years in the Tarantula Nebula—so named because of its long, dusty filaments. This stellar nursery is located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of the closest galaxies to our own Milky Way at a distance of 160,000 light-years.
We also were treated to spectacular images of Neptune and its rings, which have not been directly observed since Voyager 2 flew by the planet in 1989. It is difficult to observe these rings from afar because they are close to the planet and obscured by Neptune’s brightness. But the Webb telescope found both prominent rings as well as bands of dust.
And now we have the Pillars of Creation—arguably the most famous image taken by Webb’s predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, in 1995. (Chances are, someone you know has a T-shirt or coffee mug depicting that image—it’s that famous.) The pillars are basically cool molecular hydrogen and dust slowly being eroded by the UV light of nearby hot stars. The famous image received its name because buried beneath all that gas and dust, new stars are born.
The Webb Space Telescope’s new image particularly showcases those protostars—bright red orbs, occasionally with sharp diffraction spikes. Check it out:
There are also distinct lines resembling lava along the edges of the pillars—ejections from the stars in the process of forming, still just a few hundred thousand years old. There are no distant galaxies visible in this latest image, however, because the interstellar medium is blocking Webb’s view. Still, astronomers are excited because the data behind the image will likely lead to improved models of star formation.