The most recent images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope of the Pillars of Creation, better known to astronomers as M16 in the Eagle Nebula, are enough to leave most people speechless. Hubble’s first iconic images of this star-forming region were so stunning at the time that they produced a cottage industry of kitschy mainstays – from calendars to coffee mugs.
But scientifically, the most recent images released by NASA today show a close-up view of stars being born inside those dusty towers of creation. For the most part, they remain pretty images to marvel at.
Yet for professional astronomers, they offer a cornucopia of untold scientific data to study for years.
Several thousand stars formed in these Pillars of Creation, which are actually three giant columns of cold gas bathed in searing ultraviolet light from a cluster of massive young stars, according to NASA. Located in a small region of the Eagle Nebula, or M16, about 6,500 light-years away, the pillars, filled with gas and dust, shroud stars that slowly form over millennia, NASA notes.
In the most recent images from the James Webb Space Telescope, its mid-infrared instrument (MIRI), many newly formed stars appear to be missing, according to NASA. This is actually because many of these newly formed stars are simply no longer surrounded by enough dust to be detected in the mid-infrared spectrum, NASA notes.
This is because massive stars push dust and gas away from their birth environment through their emission of extreme ultraviolet radiation as well as powerful stellar winds.
The finger-like shape of the pillars is produced by the expansion of gas and dust bubbles, sculpted by evaporation caused by ionizing radiation. Stellar winds and a barrage of charged particles from the central star cluster above the pillars are also ablating this region, according to NASA.
Although astronomers have learned a great deal about star formation over the past few decades, the mechanisms that drive the production of lower-mass stars like our own G-spectral type star are still not fully understood.
But with more powerful telescopes like Webb, theorists will better understand these processes. The Eagle Nebula is several thousand light-years away and so far hasn’t revealed the detail of its star formation as easily as the Orion Nebula, which is just 1300 light-years away and is the closest and most studied star-forming region to Earth.
Although astronomers know that the brightest and most massive stars are short-lived and typically only live on time scales of a few million years, most stars in the universe appear to be dwarfs. lower mass reds. These spectral type M stars can continue their lives as hydrogen-burning main-sequence stars for tens of billions of years.
The researchers’ hope is that the data produced by Webb will allow researchers to better understand the composition and dynamics of the dust found in this iconic region of the Eagle Nebula.
Over time, we will begin to understand more clearly how stars form and erupt from these dusty clouds over millions of years, reports the European Space Agency (ESA).
Because supernovae are only produced by massive stars, our own Sun most likely had its beginnings as part of an alluring but violent nebula that probably looked a lot like the Pillars of Creation.
Essentially, NASA’s Webb has given us exquisite snapshots of the kind of turmoil our own star must have emerged from about 4.56 billion years ago.