Yes, it’s full of stars, and stars to be.
Twenty-seven years ago, in 1995, the Hubble Space Telescope wowed the world with a cosmic landscape called Pillars of Creation. The image revealed towering mountains of gas and dust in the Eagle Nebula, one of the most productive star factories in the Milky Way galaxy. It was high art from deep space and a visual triumph for the newly repaired and reborn Hubble, which had been marred by a blurred lens that prevented it from recording clearer scenes of the cosmos.
Now the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s successor, has turned its infrared eyes to see through those same columns and inspect the newborns still in their dusty cribs. In the new view of the Pillars released on Wednesday, cherry-red streaks and waves are jets of material squeezed from globs of gas and dust — baby protostars — as they collapsed and heated up toward stardom.
After 20 years and some $10 billion the Webb telescope launched on Christmas Day last year into an orbit around the sun and a million miles from Earth. The launch was stupendously successful, as was the complex unfolding procedure in space that put the telescope into operational mode.
The Webb is designed to see infrared light, electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths longer than visible light — colors no human eye has ever seen. Viewing the cosmos in these wavelengths allows astronomers to see distant galaxies whose light has shifted into infrared with their motion away from Earth, and to peer through dust clouds that litter the lanes of interstellar space.
The telescope has proved its worth. In the last few months it has dazzled astronomers with new views of a universe that they thought they knew: galaxies and stars at the edge of time, only a few hundred million years after the Big Bang; spooky pictures of planets like Neptune and Jupiter; delicate probes of the atmospheres of exoplanets that are possible lairs of alien life-forms; a view of detritus from a small asteroid just after the NASA DART spacecraft, practicing planetary defense, intentionally smashed into it; and cosmic landscapes like the Pillars of Creation or the cosmic cliffs of the Carina Nebula, emphasizing the immense scale and fragile drama of the cycles of creation and destruction that characterize the seasons of existence in our galaxy.
The Eagle Nebula is about 6,500 light-years from Earth and is in the constellation Serpens, from the Latin word for “serpent.” The nebula, known also as Messier 16, is starlight that can be barely glimpsed by the naked eye on clear evenings in July and August.
Enjoy it while you can: In a few million years, the nebula will be gone, evaporated by its fierce stellar progeny like a fleecy windblown cirrus cloud on a summer afternoon.
The new image was made with Webb’s Near Infrared Camera, or NIRCam. Astronomers said in a news release that the telescope’s observation would allow a better census of the nebula’s stars and their types, and thus improve their models and theories of how stars form, escape from their dusty crèches, die and pass on their substances to the future. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.