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Starts With A Bang

The epic race inside the Pillars of Creation is almost over

The last infant stars are finishing their formation inside these pillars of gas. The evaporation of those columns is almost complete.
This remarkable three-panel image showcases the same region of space: the Pillars of Creation. On the left, the 1995 Hubble view is shown. At center, the follow-up 2014 Hubble image, with an upgraded instrument suite, is presented. At right, the 2022 view, taken with JWST's NIRCam imager, is displayed. The variety of features showcases the power of multiwavelength astronomy, but also subtly shows the Pillars shrinking, as external radiation evaporates them away.
Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI; the Hubble Heritage Team; J. Hester and P. Scowen; compilation by E. Siegel
Key Takeaways
  • There’s an incredible life cycle for the formation of stars, and an iconic site of star birth within the Milky Way, the Pillars of Creation, nears the end of its time in this Universe.
  • From the inside, new stars are heating the gaseous matter, while ultraviolet radiation slowly boils them away from the outside. In ~100,000 years or so, the material will all be gone.
  • What remains will be a series of newly formed stars and star clusters, blowing a great bubble of ionization into interstellar space. The epic race, between radiation and gravity, nears its ultimate end.

Some 6500 light-years away, an epic race nears its end.

Eagle nebula wide field
This ground-based, wide-field image of the Eagle Nebula shows the star-forming region in all its glory, with new stars, the blue glow of reflected starlight, and the red glow of ionized atoms all present. Dusty, light-blocking features are also prominent. The reddish glow at the gaseous outskirts is a result of hydrogen atoms recombining, and a photon of precisely 656.3 nanometers being emitted every time an electron transitions from the n=3 to the n=2 energy state.
Credit: ESO

Inside the Eagle Nebula, the last stores of neutral gas now face evaporation.

A large section of the Eagle Nebula, with four of the Hubble Space Telescope’s iconic images superimposed atop the relevant region of the larger nebula. Although these features, highlighted by the central Pillars of Creation, are incredibly interesting because of the neutral matter still present, most of the nebula is instead simply an empty, cavernous void littered with isolated stars and star clusters.
Credit: ESA/Hubble and NASA; Wikimedia Commons user Friendlystar

Located within the Milky Way’s plane, new stars form when cold gas collapses.

        Description: A series of images showcasing star birth and various types of stars.
The dense cores of protostar cluster G333.23–0.06, as identified by ALMA, show strong evidence for large levels of multiplicity within these cores. Binary cores are common, and groups of multiple binaries, forming quaternary systems, are also quite common. Triplet and quintuplet systems are also found inside, while, for these high-mass clumps, singlet stars turn out to be quite rare. It is expected that the stars forming in nebulae all throughout the Universe, including in the Eagle Nebula, have similar clumpy properties.
Credit: S. Li et al., Nature Astronomy, 2024

That collapse leads to fragmentation, and eventually, the formation of new stellar systems.

Chandra’s unique ability to resolve and locate X-ray sources made it possible to identify hundreds of very young stars, and those still in the process of forming (known as “protostars”). Infrared observations from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the European Southern Observatory indicate that 219 of the X-ray sources in the Eagle Nebula are young stars surrounded by disks of dust and gas and 964 are young stars without these disks: combined, more than 1000 new stars and protostars have been found. And no, there were no indications of recent supernovae or supernova remnants discovered; the Pillars are not in the process of being destroyed.
Credit: NASA/CXC/INAF/M.Guarcello et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI

However, young stars are hot and violent: emitting huge quantities of ultraviolet radiation.

pillars of creation jwst
Over the timespan of 27 years, our view of the Pillars of Creation has not only expanded in size and resolution, but also in terms of wavelength coverage. The longer-wavelengths of light, as revealed in unprecedented resolution by JWST, allow us to see features that could never be exposed by an optical telescope, even one in space, on its own. We can also tell, although the effect is subtle, that the Pillars are slowly evaporating, and that after ~100,000 years or so, they will be completely gone.
Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI; the Hubble Heritage Team; J. Hester and P. Scowen; animation by E. Siegel

These photons ionize atoms, transforming them into plasma, and boiling them away.

herschel pillars
This Herschel image of the Eagle Nebula shows the heat-based emission of the intensely cold nebula’s gas and dust as only far-infrared views can capture. Each color shows a different temperature of dust, from around 10 degrees above absolute zero (10 Kelvin or minus 442 degrees Fahrenheit) for the red, up to around 40 Kelvin, or minus 388 degrees Fahrenheit, for the blue. The Pillars of Creation, identifiable just below and to the left of center, are among the hottest parts of the nebula as revealed by these wavelengths.
Credit: ESA/Herschel/PACS/SPIRE/Hill, Motte, HOBYS Key Programme Consortium

Once a large gas cloud, most of the Eagle Nebula is now cavernous.

Using Chandra, researchers detected over 1,700 X-ray sources in the field of the Eagle Nebula. Two thirds of these sources are likely young stars located in the nebula, and some of them are seen in this small field of view around the Pillars of Creation. Although most of the sources aren’t coming from within the pillars themselves, the “eye” of the largest pillar corresponds to a protostar about 5 times the mass of the Sun. The pillars themselves represent some of the last stores of gas in the nebula’s interior that have not yet been fully photoevaporated.
Credit: NASA/CXC/INAF/M.Guarcello et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI

Massive, newborn star systems dominate the interior, leaving few scattered patches of gas.

Three images of the same celestial pillar from the Eagle Nebula, known as the Pillars of Creation, captured by Hubble (left, center) and James Webb (right) telescopes, show progressive detail and color variation from green to blue to starfield.
This three-panel view of the central pillar in the Pillars of Creation shows how our views of it have evolved from Hubble’s 1995 image, to Hubble’s 2014 image, through JWST’s 2022 image. The level of detail seen in the dust composition of the pillar is particularly striking, as are the background stars unveiled by JWST that are completely obscure to Hubble’s eyes. The color differences between the first two and the third panel, near the pillar’s top, provide evidence of energy transport within the pillar itself.
Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI; the Hubble Heritage Team; J. Hester and P. Scowen; compilation by E. Siegel

Three towering columns, some 4-5 light-years high, still remain: the Pillars of Creation.

At left is the iconic view of the Pillars of Creation as seen by Hubble. Beginning in 2022, JWST (at right) has viewed the pillars as well, revealing details such as newly forming stars, faint protostars, and cool gas that are invisible to even Hubble’s impressive capabilities.
Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI; Joseph DePasquale (STScI), Anton M. Koekemoer (STScI), Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

Observations from 1995-present show the Pillars slowly shrinking: evaporating from external radiation.

By rotating and stretching Hubble’s two iconic, high-resolution images of the tip of the tallest pillar relative to one another, the changes from 1995 to 2015 can be overlaid. Contrary to the expectations of many, the evaporative process is slow and small, indicating that the pillars will persist for ~100,000 years or more.
Credit: WFC3: NASA, ESA/Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team WFPC2: NASA, ESA/Hubble, STScI, J. Hester and P. Scowen (Arizona State University)

X-rays and infrared light reveal the presence of young, newly forming stars inside.

infrared pillars of creation
This infrared view of the Pillars of Creation from the ESO’s Very Large Telescope, an 8.2 meter ground-based telescope, largely peers through the dust of the Pillars of Creation to reveal the stars forming inside. JWST’s views are in similar wavelengths, but are much higher-resolution, much more detailed, and span a much greater range in wavelengths.
Credit: VLT/ISAAC/McCaughrean & Andersen/AIP/ESO

With no evidence for a recent supernova, these structures face a losing endgame.

This colorful view of the Pillars of Creation leverages a large suite of JWST data, showcasing the tenuous and transient nature of these neutral gas features. Stars form within nebulae such as this, but once the gas evaporates, all they can do is burn through their fuel until they die.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI; Processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI), Alyssa Pagan (STScI), Anton M. Koekemoer (STScI)

Internal and external radiation will boil the final stores of gas away after ~100,000 years.

infrared pillars
This infrared, composite view of multiple channels from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, taken in 2007, reveals the “Pillars of Creation” at right and the “Spire” or “Fairy” at left, similar to the iconic features revealed by Hubble in optical wavelengths. JWST has yet to image the Fairy, but its dense, central core of gas may yet outlast the neutral matter present in the pillars.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/N. Flagey (IAS/SSC) & A. Noriega-Crespo (SSC/Caltech)

The heaviest, most massive clumps will become full-fledged stars.

JuMBOs planet mass orion nebula JWST nircam
This small region of the Orion Nebula, taken with JWST’s NIRCam imager, showcases not only stars and gas and dust, but also planet-mass objects, five of which are surprisingly found in binary pairs. These are known as JuMBOs (Jupiter-Mass Binary Objects), and comprise about 9% of all planetary-mass objects found in the Orion Nebula. Although the Pillars of Creation are some five times as distant, similar physics, and similar objects, should be present and at play.
Credit: M.J. McCaughrean & S.G. Pearson, A&A submitted, 2023

“Failed stars” like brown dwarfs and Jupiter-like worlds also form abundantly.

This 3-D visualization of the location and properties of the feature that appears as the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula is actually composed of at least four different, disconnected components which are on either sides of a rich star cluster: NGC 6611. The neutral matter both absorbs and reflects starlight, leading to its unique appearance at optical wavelengths, and spectacular sights when viewed in infrared by JWST.
Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Only 5-10% of the initial gas becomes stars; the remainder returns to interstellar space.

Mostly Mute Monday tells an astronomical story in images, visuals, and no more than 200 words.


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