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Spitzer Space Telescope sees:
'Mountains of Creation' in Deep Space
Majestic. Astonishing. Dazzling. Marvelous. Incredible. Exceptional. Magnificent. Unparalleled. Breathtaking. Thrilling. Awe-inspiring.
Image: NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory - California Institute of Technology, Lori Allen - Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Pick a superlative and it has been used by observers around the globe to describe the extraordinary new infrared image recorded by the Spitzer Space Telescope of billowing clouds of dust ablaze with the light of newborn stars. Described as the Mountains of Creation, the clouds lie a region of deep space some 7,000 lightyears away from Earth.
The picture reminds viewers of the famous Pillars of Creation photo of the Eagle Nebula in visible light recorded by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope back in 1995. The Pillars of Creation photo »
Gas and dust. Both the Mountains of Creation and the Pillars of Creation are star-forming clouds of cool gas and dust that have been sculpted into columns by radiation and winds from nearby hot, massive stars.
The Spitzer image shows the eastern edge of a region of deep space known as W5, in the Cassiopeia constellation in Earth's sky. That area is dominated by one massive star. The pillars point to the location of the massive star just beyond the edge of the picture.
The pillars in the Spitzer image are colossal – more than ten times the size of the pillars in the Eagle Nebula by Hubble.
The largest of the pillars in the Mountains of Creation enshrouds hundreds of emerging stars. The second largest pillar contains dozens of young stars.
Spitzer's eye. Infrared light makes it possible to see inside the mountains:
"We believe that the star clusters lighting up the tips of the pillars are essentially the offspring of the region's single, massive star. It appears that radiation and winds from the massive star triggered new stars to form."
--Lead investigator Dr. Lori Allen, Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Massachusetts, November 9, 2005
Spitzer not only allows astronomers to see the stars inside the pillars, but also to estimate their age and how they formed.
- Visible-light images of the region show dark towers outlined by halos of light. The stars inside are cloaked by walls of dust.
- On the other hand, Spitzer was able to sees the stars forming inside the pillars as infrared light coming from the young stars escapes through the dust.
Stellar nursery. The Eagle Nebula and the W5 region are known to be high-mass star-forming regions. That means they are thick, turbulent clouds of gas and dust that give birth to whole families of stars. Some of the stars are more than ten times more massive than our Sun.
Radiation and winds from the massive stars blast away any thinner cloud material, so only the most dense pillar-shaped clumps of material remain. That process is something like the way mesas form in deserts. Mesas are dense rock that resisted erosion by water and wind.
Eventually, the pillars become sufficiently dense to begin the birth of a second generation of stars. In turn, those second-generation stars trigger successive generations. Astronomers wonder if the Sun might have been a member of such an extended stellar family when it was born almost five billion years ago.
JPL and GSFC. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, manages Spitzer for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the Caltech. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, built Spitzer's infrared camera.
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