The US space agency Nasa has issued a second image of the famous “Pillars of Creation” taken by the new super space telescope, James Webb.
This week we get a rendering of the active star-forming region as seen by Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI).
Last week, it was the observatory’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) that was highlighting this remarkable location some 6,500 light-years from Earth.
The pillars lie at the heart of what astronomers refer to as Messier 16 (M16), or the Eagle Nebula.
They are the subject of intense study. Every great telescope is pointed in their direction to try to understand the physics and the chemistry in play as new stars are birthed in great clouds of gas and dust.
Webb, with its 6.5m-wide mirror and high-fidelity sensors, is the latest, biggest and best space observatory to take in the scene.
What’s interesting about the new MIRI picture is the choice of wavelengths used to display the pillars.
Ordinarily, astronomers might filter the light to make the dusty columns go very largely translucent, so that their interior, nascent stars can be seen in greater detail. This is what the NIRCam image did: it emphasised the thousands of young blue stars that are present.
And MIRI is capable of taking this approach on another step. But on this occasion, the filtering has selected those wavelengths at which the dust itself actually glows.
“Defying expectations that mid-infrared observations let you see through dust, this stunning image shows that they’re also great for studying dust and complex molecules made to glow by the intense light of nearby hot stars,” explained Prof Mark McCaughrean, the senior advisor for science at the European Space Agency.