US Stamps

Pillars of Creation and Cosmic Cliffs debut Jan. 22 on new Stellar Formations series of Priority Mail stamps

Jan 19, 2024, 9 AM

By Charles Snee

On Jan. 22, the United States Postal Service will launch a new series of Priority Mail and Priority Mail Express stamps showcasing remarkable photographs of stellar formations taken by the James Webb Space Telescope.

In a nod to the subjects portrayed on the two new stamps and others likely to be issued in the future, Linn’s Stamp News has dubbed the new series Stellar Formations.

Although no official first-day ceremony is planned for the two stamps, the designated first-day city is Greenbelt, Md., home to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, which managed the development of the Webb Telescope.

The new $9.85 Priority Mail stamp shows a high-definition infrared image of the Pillars of Creation, a formation within the Eagle Nebula, and the $30.45 Priority Mail Express stamp features a “digitally colored depiction of the invisible bands of mid-infrared light emitted by the Cosmic Cliffs of the Carina Nebula,” according to the Postal Service.

Both stamps are to be issued the day after new postal rates go into effect on Jan. 21, a Sunday.

Flat-rate Priority Mail postage rose from $9.65 to $9.85. The increase in the flat rate for Priority Mail Express was more substantial, jumping from $28.75 to $30.45. Postage for a first-class letter increased from 66¢ to 68¢.

The $30.45 Cosmic Cliffs now has the highest face value of any regular postage stamp issued by the United States. It dethrones the $28.75 Great Smoky Mountains (Scott 5752) issued Jan. 22, 2023.

Postal Service art director Greg Breeding designed the $9.85 Pillars of Creation Priority Mail stamp using an image provided by NASA and the European Space Agency, Canadian Space Agency and Space Telescope Science Institute.

“This new Priority Mail stamp features a digitally colored depiction of the invisible bands of mid-infrared light emitted by the Pillars of Creation,” according to the Postal Service.

“By assigning color to various wavelengths, the digitized image allows us to see a landscape otherwise invisible to the human eye,” the USPS said. “Red areas toward the end of the pillars show burgeoning stars ejecting raw materials as they form, while the relatively small red orbs scattered throughout the image show newly born stars.”

The Pillars of Creation span approximately four to five light-years and are a small part of the Eagle Nebula, which is 70 by 55 light-years, according to NASA. Swiss astronomer Jean-Philippe Loys de Cheseaux discovered the Eagle Nebula in 1745. (According to NASA, a “light year is the distance a photon of light travels in one year, which is about 6 trillion miles.”)

“Webb’s new view of the Pillars of Creation, which were first made famous when imaged by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in 1995, will help researchers revamp their models of star formation by identifying far more precise counts of newly formed stars, along with the quantities of gas and dust in the region,” NASA said in an article published Oct. 19, 2022, on its website.

Some of the pillars have wavy lava-like lines near their edges. According to NASA, those lines “are ejections from stars that are still forming within the gas and dust.”

Breeding also designed the $30.45 Cosmic Cliffs Priority Mail Express stamp using an image from the same sources that supplied the image for the Pillars of Creation Priority Mail stamp.

Developing and freshly born stars are depicted as red and yellow flares scattered among the cliffs, the Postal Service said.

“The orange and brown clouds in the lower third of the [stamp] image are swirls of dust and gas,” according to the USPS. “Additional stars, in our Milky Way and in distant galaxies, appear in the blue and black regions above and beyond the nebula.”

The Cosmic Cliffs represent the edge of a young area of nascent stars called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. James Dunlop, a Scottish astronomer working in Australia, first documented NGC 3324 in 1826.

The infrared image of the Cosmic Cliffs captured by the Webb Telescope “reveals for the first time previously invisible areas of star birth,” NASA said in an online article published July 12, 2022.

The telescope’s “seemingly three-dimensional picture looks like craggy mountains on a moonlit evening,” NASA said.

“In reality, it is the edge of the giant, gaseous cavity within NGC 3324, and the tallest ‘peaks’ … are about 7 light-years high. The cavernous area has been carved from the nebula by the intense ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds from extremely massive, hot, young stars …

“The blistering, ultraviolet radiation from the young stars is sculpting the nebula’s wall by slowly eroding it away. Dramatic pillars tower above the glowing wall of gas, resisting this radiation. The ‘steam’ that appears to rise from the celestial ‘mountains’ is actually hot, ionized gas and hot dust streaming away from the nebula due to the relentless radiation.”

Breeding faced a challenge when portraying these incredibly vast stellar formations on a canvas the size of a postage stamp.

“The opposing sizes of a postage stamp versus the universe was certainly a challenge but the images provided by the Webb telescope are amazing and there are many, which introduces a unique challenge of its own,” Breeding told Linn’s.

To read more about the two new Stellar Formations stamps, subscribe to Linn’s Stamp News.

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