Pillars of Creation (Visualization Mosaic)

This image is a mosaic of visible-light and infrared-light views of the same frame from the 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). Credit: 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

NASA’s new 3D visualization of the “Pillars of Creation” combines data from the Hubble and James Webb Space Telescopes to provide an immersive experience into these iconic star-birthing clouds.

The breathtaking new visualization enables viewers to explore fundamental questions in science, experience how science is done, and discover the universe for themselves.

A team from NASA’s Universe of Learning at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland produced the stunning new 3D visualization of the towering “Pillars of Creation” in the Eagle Nebula by combining data from NASA’s Hubble and James Webb space telescopes. This is the most comprehensive, detailed, multiwavelength movie yet of these iconic star-birthing clouds.

Pillars of Creation Star in New Visualization From NASA’s Hubble and Webb Telescopes

Made famous in 1995 by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, the Pillars of Creation in the heart of the Eagle Nebula have captured imaginations worldwide with their arresting, ethereal beauty.

Now, NASA has released a new 3D visualization of these towering celestial structures using data from NASA’s Hubble and James Webb space telescopes. This is the most comprehensive and detailed multiwavelength movie yet of these star-birthing clouds.

Insights From Multiple Wavelengths

“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,” explained principal visualization scientist Frank Summers of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, who led the movie development team for NASA’s Universe of Learning. “The contrast helps them understand why we have more than one space telescope to observe different aspects of the same object.”

The four Pillars of Creation, made primarily of cool molecular hydrogen and dust, are being eroded by the fierce winds and punishing ultraviolet light of nearby hot, young stars. Finger-like structures larger than the solar system protrude from the tops of the pillars. Within these fingers can be embedded, embryonic stars. The tallest pillar stretches across three light-years, three-quarters of the distance between our Sun and the next nearest star.

Observational Data and Scientific Accuracy

The movie takes visitors into the three-dimensional structures of the pillars. Rather than an artistic interpretation, the video is based on observational data from a science paper led by Anna McLeod, an associate professor at the University of Durham in the United Kingdom. McLeod also served as a scientific advisor on the movie project.

“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,” said production lead Greg Bacon of STScI. “Understanding the science and how to best represent it allowed our small, talented team to meet the challenge of visualizing this iconic structure.”

Multi-Wavelength Observations and Understanding

The new visualization helps viewers experience how two of the world’s most powerful space telescopes work together to provide a more complex and holistic portrait of the pillars. Hubble sees objects that glow in visible light, at thousands of degrees. Webb’s infrared vision, which is sensitive to cooler objects with temperatures of just hundreds of degrees, pierces through obscuring dust to see 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,” said Mark Clampin, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “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.”

Bringing Space Exploration to Public Learning

Produced for NASA by STScI with partners at Caltech/IPAC, and developed by the AstroViz Project of NASA’s Universe of Learning, the 3D visualization (first video in this article) is part of a longer, narrated video (second video in this article) that combines a direct connection to the science and scientists of NASA’s Astrophysics missions with attention to the needs of an audience of youth, families, and lifelong learners. It enables viewers to explore fundamental questions in science, experience how science is done, and discover the universe for themselves.

New Developments and Educational Tools

Several stages of star formation are highlighted in the visualization. As viewers approach the central pillar, they see at its top an embedded, infant protostar glimmering bright red in infrared light. Near the top of the left pillar is a diagonal jet of material ejected from a newborn star. Though the jet is evidence of star birth, viewers can’t see the star itself. Finally, at the end of one of the left pillar’s protruding “fingers” is a blazing, brand-new star.

Pillars of Creation 3D Model

This photograph shows a 3D printed model of the famous Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula. The 3D sculpted computer model used in the Pillars of Creation visualization was converted to the STL file format and set atop a round base for use with 3D printers. Credit: Leah Hustak (STScI), Ralf Crawford (STScI), NASA’s Universe of Learning

Expanding Public Engagement With Astronomy

A bonus product from this visualization is a new 3D printable model of the Pillars of Creation. The base model of the four pillars used in the visualization has been adapted to the STL file format, so that viewers can download the model file and print it out on 3D printers. Examining the structure of the pillars in this tactile and interactive way adds new perspectives and insights to the overall experience.

Conclusion: Ongoing Education and Exploration

More visualizations and connections between the science of nebulas and learners can be explored through other products produced by NASA’s Universe of Learning such as ViewSpace, a video exhibit that is currently running at almost 200 museums and planetariums across the United States. Visitors can go beyond video to explore the images produced by space telescopes with interactive tools now available for museums and planetariums.

NASA’s Universe of Learning materials are based upon work supported by NASA under award number NNX16AC65A to the Space Telescope Science Institute, working in partnership with Caltech/IPAC, Pasadena, California, Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Jet Propulsion Laboratory, La Cañada Flintridge, California.

The Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, is one of the most significant instruments in the history of astronomy. Orbiting Earth from about 547 kilometers above, Hubble has revolutionized our understanding of the universe through its extraordinarily clear and deep view of the cosmos, unobstructed by Earth’s atmosphere. Over the decades, it has provided invaluable data and stunning images that have led to major discoveries in various areas of astrophysics, including the expansion rate of the universe, the presence of dark matter, and the properties of exoplanets. Unlike ground-based telescopes, Hubble can capture high-resolution images in ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared light, offering a comprehensive view of celestial objects and phenomena that has transformed both scientific knowledge and public interest in space exploration.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), launched on December 25, 2021, represents the next great leap in space observatories. Positioned nearly 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, Webb is designed to observe the universe primarily in the infrared spectrum, allowing it to look further back in time than ever before, to just after the Big Bang. This capability enables astronomers to study the formation of the first galaxies, stars, and planetary systems. Webb’s suite of sophisticated instruments and larger primary mirror, compared to its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, provides unprecedented resolution and sensitivity, making it ideal for exploring the atmospheres of exoplanets and detecting signs of possible life. The telescope’s unique position at the second Lagrange point (L2) shields it from the light and heat of the Sun and Earth, ensuring it can observe the cosmos with minimal interference.

NASA’s Universe of Learning is an integrated astronomy learning and education program that provides resources and experiences to help audiences understand the universe while connecting them with the science and technology of NASA’s astrophysics missions. Through collaborations among NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, the Space Telescope Science Institute, IPAC/Caltech, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, this program offers a wide range of materials including visualizations, interactive simulations, and educational activities. These resources are designed to engage learners of all ages in the process of scientific discovery, inspiring the next generation of astronomers and enhancing public understanding of the universe.

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