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Starts With A Bang

This Gorgeous Nebula In Space Reveals How The Stars Came To Be

The 2015 view of the pillars of creation showcases a combination of visible and infrared data, a wide field-of-view, spectral lines that indicate the presence of a variety of heavy elements, and that showcase subtle changes over time from the earlier, 1995 image. The Pillars of Creation represent just one small part, albeit the most famous part, of a larger star-forming region: the Eagle Nebula. (NASA, ESA/HUBBLE AND THE HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM; ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: P. SCOWEN (ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY, USA) AND J. HESTER (FORMERLY OF ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY, USA))

The Eagle Nebula, complete with the Pillars of Creation, tells a mini-version of the story of how all the Universe’s stars formed.

The Eagle Nebula, found 7,000 light-years away, demonstrates how Sun-like stars are born.

This color-composite image of the Eagle Nebula displays a number of iconic features, including the ‘Eagle head/wings’ at top, the Pillars of Creation at the center, the enormous star cluster to the upper right, and the ‘fairy’ at left. The entire nebula is 70 light-years by 55 light-years, and is located approximately 7,000 light-years away. (ESO / LA SILLA OBSERVATORY)

An enormous molecular gas cloud, spanning 70 light-years across, provides the raw material for star-formation.

The Eagle Nebula contains thousands of new stars, a brilliant central star cluster, and various evaporating gaseous globules containing active star formation and brilliant young stars of their own. The gaseous regions are in the process of evaporating due to (mostly external) ultraviolet radiation. (NASA / ESA & HUBBLE; WIKISKY TOOL)

Deep inside, gravitational collapse causes different regions to collapse at different rates.

The open star cluster NGC 6611, found in the Eagle Nebula, consists largely of hot, young, blue stars that will go supernova in the next few million years. All told, approximately 8,100 new stars can be found in the Eagle Nebula, no more than 1–2 million years of age. (ESA/HUBBLE AND NASA)

The first stars to form inside did so 1–2 million years ago, creating a cluster of about 8,000 new stars.

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. The number of supernova remnants? Zero. (X-RAY: NASA/CXC/INAF/M.GUARCELLO ET AL.; OPTICAL: NASA/STSCI)

X-ray astronomers discovered 20% of those young stars contain protoplanetary disks, but found zero supernova remnants.

The Herschel Space Observatory captured this image of the Eagle nebula, with its intensely cold gas and dust. The “Pillars of Creation,” made famous by NASA’S Hubble Space Telescope in 1995, are seen inside the circle. The different colors represent gas that’s extremely cool: between 10 and 40 K. (ESA/HERSCHEL/PACS/SPIRE/HILL, MOTTE, HOBYS KEY PROGRAMME CONSORTIUM)

The ultraviolet light from new stars carves gaps in the nebula, but the persisting clumps continue to form stars.

This haunting spire, captured by Hubble in visible and infrared light, is composed of cold gas and dust within M16. Stretching 9.5 light-years, this tower spans more than twice the distance from our sun to its nearest star. Radiation from the hot young stars in the top half of the image are illuminating and eroding the structure, commonly known as the ‘fairy.’ (NASA, ESA AND THE HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM (STSCI/AURA))

The largest dust structure is known as the “fairy,” spanning 9.5 light-years in extent but evaporating rapidly.

This image compares two views of the Eagle Nebula’s Pillars of Creation taken with Hubble 20 years apart. The newer image, on the left, captures almost exactly the same region as in the 1995, on the right. However, the newer image uses Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, installed in 2009, to capture light from glowing oxygen, hydrogen, and sulphur with greater clarity. Having both images allows astronomers to study how the structure of the pillars is changing over time, and showcases one of the finest examples of what we can learn by doing astronomy in space. (WFC3: NASA, ESA/HUBBLE AND THE HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM WFPC2: NASA, ESA/HUBBLE, STSCI, J. HESTER AND P. SCOWEN (ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY))

But the most famous feature of all is the Pillars of Creation, iconically captured by Hubble in both 1995 and 2014.

Subtle changes in the gas structure of the top pillar showcase an outflow that likely originates from a newborn, massive star inside the pillar. (NASA, ESA, AND THE HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM (STSCI/AURA))

The pillars illustrate an ongoing race: between evaporative radiation and gravitational collapse.

The infrared view of the pillars allows the newly forming stars, inside the pillars, to be seen. The blue signature showcases gas in the process of evaporating; the faintness of that signal indicates a relatively slow rate of evaporation. It should take at least 100,000+ years for the pillars to evaporate completely. (NASA, ESA/HUBBLE AND THE HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM; ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: P. SCOWEN (ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY, USA) AND J. HESTER (FORMERLY OF ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY, USA))

The rate of evaporation can be measured and is slow: it will take 100,000+ years for the pillars to evaporate.

The VLT’s ANTU telescope imaged the famous Pillars of Creation region and its surroundings in near-infrared in 2012. This enabled astronomers to penetrate the obscuring dust in their search to detect newly formed stars. The near-infrared results showed that some (11 of the 73) evaporating gas globules detected possibly contained stars, and that the tips of the pillars contain stars and nebulosity not seen in the Hubble image. (VLT/ISAAC/MCCAUGHREAN & ANDERSEN/AIP/ESO)

In the meantime, star-formation continues, resulting in large numbers of red dwarfs and even failed stars.

Stars (in blue), ionized hydrogen (in red), and neutral, light-blocking gas (in black) all abound throughout the Eagle Nebula, providing a wide-field view of one of the Milky Way’s hotbeds of new star formation. Some 4.56 billion years ago, our Sun formed in a similar region, while the stars forming here will get spread throughout the galaxy as the next, post-solar generation of stars. (GÖRAN NILSSON & THE LIVERPOOL TELESCOPE)

This nebula and cluster will soon dissipate, seeding the galaxy with the next generation of stars.

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

Ethan Siegel is the author of Beyond the Galaxy and Treknology. You can pre-order his third book, currently in development: the Encyclopaedia Cosmologica.


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