Webb telescope’s Pillars of Creation shows us things Hubble couldn’t


Imagine gazing up in the Sistine Chapel to a ceiling 6,500 light-years high.

Astronomers have called this tiny section of the Eagle Nebula in the Milky Way (pictured above) the “Pillars of Creation.” Some say the name comes from a phrase in a 19th century sermon on Christ’s condescension. In the oration, a pastor described the dichotomy of an all-powerful God, creator of everything, taking the form of a delicate newborn baby.

But this cloud of interstellar gas and dust in space always bore a resemblance to an older masterwork — and an even older Biblical icon — that of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Within the cosmic fresco appears man’s outstretched hand toward God, his fragile fingers grasping at his place within the heavens.

NASA‘s Hubble Space Telescope made this region of the sky famous when it photographed it in 1995 and again in 2014. Now the world can see it through the fresh eyes of its infrared-sensing counterpart. In a new James Webb Space Telescope image released this week, the once plaster-smooth sweeps of the wrist, palm, and fingers are chiseled away. The hand seems more lifelike, yet ethereal, at once.

That’s because the new observatory shows the Pillars of Creation in infrared light, exposing texture and translucent gas, according to NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency, the three collaborators on the telescope. All of the yellowed features come from small dust grains made of carbon and hydrogen. When ultraviolet light shines on them, they illuminate as a very thin drape over the cloud, transforming it from flat to 3-dimensional.

“It’s almost like a blanket that sort of waves across the field,” said Klaus Pontoppidan, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, during a news conference in July.

“It’s almost like a blanket that sort of waves across the field.”

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Hubble viewing Pillars of Creation

The Hubble Space Telescope shows the Pillars of Creation in optical light.
Credit: NASA / ESA

The James Webb Space Telescope shows the Pillars of Creation in the infrared.
Credit: NASA / ESA / CSA / STSI

Since the telescope launched into space nine months ago, NASA has promised it would unlock the universe for humankind, with its piercing vision and cutting-edge instruments. Astronomers expect it to lead to unimaginable discoveries.

The universe began 13.8 billion years ago, shortly thereafter forming the first stars and galaxies. Astrophysicists profess that the light of those first galaxies is still burning, albeit stretched by time and the expanding universe. They exist in infrared, a form of light that human eyes can’t see. And with Webb’s highly sensitive mirrors, fainter and farther objects can suddenly pop into focus. Scientists then translate the light data into colors people can perceive and understand.

Just days before the telescope’s Christmas Day launch last year, Günther Hasinger, science director for the European Space Agency, used the Pillars of Creation as an example of how the infrared would reveal bountiful stars, gas, and dust hidden from sight in optical light.

“James Webb will actually be 100 times more sensitive than Hubble,” he said.

And here are the results: New stars, only a few hundred thousand years old, poking out around the edges of the cloud as crimson orbs. The blushing-red areas on the fingertips are caused by young stars that sometimes shoot out wavy jets. Energetic hydrogen gives them that color. Those areas of the pillars are “practically pulsing with their activity,” according to NASA.

Adam reaching toward God

Michelangelo painted the Creation of Adam fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Credit: Lucas Schifres / Getty Images

Adam reaching to God

Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel.
Credit: Lucas Schifres / Getty Images

The James Webb Space Telescope’s view of the Pillars of Creation
Credit: NASA / ESA / CSA / STSI

The new diaphanous view of the cosmos will help scientists gather more precise counts of stars in their infancy and the amount of gas and dust in their midst. This will give researchers a better idea of how stars shed their dust clouds over millions of years.

Scientists are also interested in using Webb to study those hearty hydrocarbon molecules. The universe seems to be brimming with them, and they could hold secrets to life.

“This may be the way that the universe is transporting carbon — the carbon that we’re made of — to planets that may be habitable for life,” Pontoppidan said.

In Michelangelo’s painting, Adam receives the “spark of God.” In the sky, it’s the spark of Webb.


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