Image Credit: NASA, ESA, Hubble, HLA; Processing: Lluis Romero
Astronomers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) have produced the first complete three-dimensional image of the famous Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula using the MUSE instrument of the VLT (Very Large Telescope).
The new observations demonstrate how the different dusty pillars of this iconic object are distributed in space and reveal many new details, including a previously unseen jet from a young star.
Over time, the intense radiation and stellar winds from the bright stars in the cluster have sculpted the dusty Pillars of Creation, which will end up completely evaporating in about three million years, according to the authors of this work.
Famous and evocative image
The original image of the famous Pillars of Creation, obtained by the NASA / ESA Hubble Space Telescope, was taken two decades ago and immediately became one of its most famous and evocative images.
Since then, these vaporous clouds, which span a few light-years, have astonished scientists and the general public alike.
Both the outgoing structures and the nearby star cluster, NGC 6611, are part of a star-forming region called the Eagle Nebula, also known as Messier 16 or M16. The nebula and its associated objects lie about 7,000 light-years away, in the constellation Serpens (the serpent).
Columns of birth of new stars
The Pillars of Creation are a classic example of the typical columnar shapes that develop in giant clouds of gas and dust, the places where new stars are born.
Columns emerge when huge, newly formed O- and B-type blue-white stars emit intense ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds that push the less dense material out of their vicinity.
However, denser clumps of gas and dust can resist this erosion longer. Behind these thicker clumps of dust, the material is shielded from the hard, blazing glare of the stars O and B.
This shielding creates dark ‘tails’ or ‘elephant trunks’, and is what we see as the dark body of a pillar pointing towards the bright stars.
Evaporation of the Pillars of Creation
The MUSE instrument has helped illustrate, in unprecedented detail, the constant evaporation of the Pillars of Creation, revealing their orientation.
MUSE has shown that the tip of the left column is facing forward, on top of a pillar that is actually behind NGC 6611, unlike the other pillars.
This tip takes the brunt of the radiation from the stars in NGC 6611, and as a result, we see it brighter than the bottom left, center, and right pillars, whose ends point out of our field of view.
Better understanding of the stars
Astronomers hope to better understand how young stars of type O and B, such as those in NGC 6611, influence the formation of stars of later generations. Numerous studies have identified protostars forming in these clouds, so they are pillars of creation.
The new study also provides new evidence for the existence of two stars in gestation in the left and center pillars, as well as a jet generated by a young star that we had not noticed until now.
For the process of star formation in environments such as the one that occurs in the Pillars of Creation, it is a race against time, since the intense radiation from the powerful existing stars continues to wreak havoc on the environment.
By measuring the rate of evaporation at the Pillars of Creation, MUSE has given astronomers a time frame to calculate their end: they lose about 70 times the mass of the Sun every million years or so.
Based on their current mass (about 200 times that of the Sun), the Pillars of Creation are expected to have a lifespan of perhaps three million more years, a blink in cosmic time. It seems that an equally apt name for these iconic cosmic columns could be “the pillars of destruction.”