Ethereal Pillars of Creation come to life in new 3D visualization

What’s better than one space telescope? Two space telescopes. NASA has released a new 3D visualization of the ethereal Pillars of Creation using data from the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes. According to NASA, it is the most comprehensive and detailed multiwavelength movie yet of these star-birthing clouds that were first made famous in 1995 by the Hubble Space Telescope’s stellar imaging.

“By flying past and amongst the pillars, viewers experience their three-dimensional structure and see how they look different in the Hubble visible-light view versus the Webb infrared-light view,” Frank Summers, the principal visualization scientist of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), said in a statement. “The contrast helps them understand why we have more than one space telescope to observe different aspects of the same object.”

This image is a mosaic of visible-light and infrared-light views of the same frame from the Pillars of Creation visualization. The three-dimensional model of the pillars created for the visualization sequence is alternately shown in the Hubble Space Telescope version (visible light) and the Webb Space Telescope version (infrared light). CREDITS: Visualization: Greg Bacon (STScI), Ralf Crawford (STScI), Joseph DePasquale (STScI), Leah Hustak (STScI), Christian Nieves (STScI), Joseph Olmsted (STScI), Alyssa Pagan (STScI), Frank Summers (STScI), NASA’s Universe of Learning.

Located about 6,500 light-years from Earth, the four Pillars of Creation are made primarily of cool molecular hydrogen and dust. They are being eroded by fierce winds and punishing ultraviolet light from hot, young stars nearby. The finger-like structures are larger than our solar system and protrude from the tops of the pillars and embryonic stars can be embedded in them. The tallest pillar stretches across three light-years, or about three-quarters of the distance between our sun and the closest stars. 

In the new video, viewers can go inside the three-dimensional structures of the pillars. Instead of an artistic interpretation, the movie is based on observational data from a scientific paper led by Anna McLeod from the University of Durham in the United Kingdom. 

[Related: Where do all those colors in space telescope images come from?]

“The Pillars of Creation were always on our minds to create in 3D. Webb data in combination with Hubble data allowed us to see the Pillars in more complete detail,” production lead Greg Bacon of STScI said in a statement. “Understanding the science and how to best represent it allowed our small, talented team to meet the challenge of visualizing this iconic structure.”

With the new visualization, viewers can experience how two of the most powerful space telescopes in the world work in tandem to provide a more complex and well-rounded portrait of the pillars. The three-decades-and-counting-old Hubble can observe celestial objects that glow in visible light, at thousands of degrees. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is equipped with infrared vision that’s sensitive to cooler objects, with temperatures of just hundreds of degrees. JWST’s infrared capabilities can also pierce through obscuring dust to see the stars embedded in the pillars.

“When we combine observations from NASA’s space telescopes across different wavelengths of light, we broaden our understanding of the universe,” NASA astrophysicist Mark Clampin said. “The Pillars of Creation region continues to offer us new insights that hone our understanding of how stars form. Now, with this new visualization, everyone can experience this rich, captivating landscape in a new way.”

Additionally, several stages of star formation are highlighted in the new movie. An embedded protostar glimmering bright red in infrared light is at the top of the central pillar. A diagonal jet of material ejected from a newborn star is near the top of the left pillar. While this jet of starstuff is evidence of a star birth, the star itself is invisible. A brand-new star is also located at the end of one of the left pillar’s protruding “fingers.”

[Related: How scientists colorize Hubble’s deep space photographs.]

The visualization was produced for NASA by STScI with partners at Caltech/IPAC, and developed by the AstroViz Project of NASA’s Universe of Learning.

Laura Baisas Avatar

Laura Baisas

Staff writer

Laura is a science news writer, covering a wide variety of subjects, but she is particularly fascinated by all things aquatic, paleontology, nanotechnology, and exploring how science influences daily life. Laura is a proud former resident of the New Jersey shore, a competitive swimmer, and a fierce defender of the Oxford comma.