Iconic Pillars of Creation Star in NASA’s New 3D Visualization

Made famous in a 1995 NASA image, the Pillars of Creation in the heart of the Eagle Nebula has captured imaginations worldwide for its arresting, ethereal beauty.

Now, NASA’s Universe of Learning – a partnership among the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), Caltech/IPAC, Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, and Jet Propulsion Laboratory – has released a new 3D visualization of these towering space structures. This video, which uses data from NASA’s Hubble, JWST, Spitzer, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory, is the most comprehensive and detailed multiwavelength movie yet of these star-birthing clouds.

“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 STScI in Baltimore. “The contrast helps them understand why we have more than one space telescope to observe different aspects of the same object.” Summers led the video development team.


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.

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 3D structures are approximations for how the pillars are lined up in space like a row of trees, based on observational data. The goal is to give viewers an experiential view, so that they can better interpret the otherwise flat, two-dimensional images from telescopes.

“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.”

The new visualization helps viewers experience how two of the world’s most powerful space telescopes work together to provide a more complex 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.”

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 is a narrated video 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.

The video begins with a view of the entire band of the Milky Way, then zooms into the Pillars of Creation within the Eagle Nebula – a magnification of more than 10,000. Along the way, the sequence places the pillars in context by showcasing views from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope. Chandra discovered over a thousand newborn stars, and images from Spitzer reveal the dusty skeleton of the nebula. This video also discusses the complicated interplay of stars and dust.

“Stars help create the dust pillars that actually are creating stars,” said Summers. “Then, on a larger level, stars are forming inside the Eagle Nebula, which is a giant dust cloud. The interaction between the stars and the dust on these multiple scales paints a more coherent picture of how star formation works.”

As viewers approach the central pillar, they see at its top an embedded, infant protostar glowing inside a finger-like structure. This is most apparent in the Webb image, where it glimmers in a bright red color that represents infrared light, which is invisible to our eyes. 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.

NASA’s Universe of Learning strives to make this 3D experience accessible to all. Included in this video is an STScI-developed audio description for blind/low-vision audiences. A 3D printable model of the Pillars of Creation, created by Ralf Crawford and Leah Hustak of STScI, also accompanies this release.

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.

A variety of additional learning resources related to the Pillars of Creation and star-forming regions can be found on the Universe of Learning website at http://universe-of-learning.org.

Summers is presenting this visualization at the International Planetarium Society Conference in Berlin, Germany in mid-July.

NASA's Universe of Learning is part of the NASA Science Activation program, from the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. The Science Activation program connects NASA science experts, real content and experiences, and community leaders in a way that activates minds and promotes deeper understanding of our world and beyond. Using its direct connection to the science and the experts behind the science, NASA's Universe of Learning provides resources and experiences that enable youth, families, and lifelong learners to explore fundamental questions in science, experience how science is done, and discover the universe for themselves.

Related resources (on NASA's Universe of  Learning website):



Date: June 27th, 2024
Category: Project News
Image Link: Pillars-Hubble-and-Webb-Images-Optimized.jpg