Pillars of Creation seen in new light

A stunning image dubbed the Pillars of Creation is possibly the most famous and iconic ever taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Now the European Space Agency has taken the same target and turned up the wow factor with a new image produced by two other observatories in space.

The new image produced by Herschel and XMM-Newton
The new image produced by Herschel and XMM-Newton. Credit: ESA

Those pillars, looking like ET’s outstretched fingers in the sky, were just part of a cloud of gas and dust that astronomers term the Eagle Nebula. Lying 6,500 light-years away in the constellation of Serpens, it is just one of many clouds throughout our Milky Way galaxy where new stars are being born.

Hubble could not actually see the newly hatching stars because dust blocked the view inside their clumpy incubators, known rather fittingly as EGGs for “evaporating gaseous globules”. But telescopes watching in different light, further along the spectrum from the visible, have been able to peer directly through the same dust to identify the hatchlings.

One of the telescopes responsible for the new picture was ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory, which Skymania’s Paul Sutherland visited in Fredrickshafen, Germany, as it was being assembled for its flight into space. This probe, which is able to see with infrared eyes, captured a wide-field view with the famous pillars, each many light-years long, showing at its centre.

The Herschel data was combined with an X-ray view from ESA’s orbiting XMM-Newton telescope, revealing the hot young stars that carved out the pillars. This view is only visible from space because X-rays get absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere.

The results from the two space telescopes were merged with pictures taken in the near-infrared by the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Paranal, and in visible light from Max Planck Gesellschaft 2.2meter diameter telescope at La Silla, both high observatory sites in Chile operated by the European Southern Observatory.

Together they have produced a powerful new picture of a cosmic maternity ward that not only inspires the general public but contains data that helps professional scientists understand more about how starbirth actually happens.

ESA notes that in visible wavelengths, the nebula shines mainly due to reflected starlight and hot gas filling the giant cavity, covering the surfaces of the pillars and other dusty structures. This gives the famous Hubble photo an almost 3D quality, which Skymania News heard one professional astronomer offer as a reason for the photo’s iconic nature at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society last week.

However, at near-infrared wavelengths, the dust becomes almost transparent and the pillars virtually vanish from view. They reappear in the far-infrared picture obtained by Herschel as it detects this cold dust and sees the pillars glowing in their own light. Herschel recorded intricate, shining tendrils of dust and gas which give astronomers clues about how it interacts with strong ultraviolet light from the hot stars seen by XMM-Newton.

Those famous pillars no longer exist, it seems. The Eagle Nebula contains a young hot star cluster, NGC6611, which is easily seen in amateur astronomers’ telescopes. Professional astronomers believe that one of the stars in the cluster exploded in a supernova 6,000 years ago, producing a shockwave that destroyed the pillars. If so, we will not witness this act of wanton destruction for hundreds of years yet because the Eagle Nebula is so far away. Read ESA’s special release about the new image and how it was produced.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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