Spearing the sky like monolithic elephant trunks, the "Pillars of Creation" are a vast region of star-forming material located in the Eagle Nebula, about 6,000 light-years from Earth. These tendrils of gas and dust, made colorful by the radiation of bright young stars smoldering within, became a Milky Way landmark thanks to an iconic visible-light image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995.
Now, NASA scientists have shared a new view of the pillars, focusing instead on the infrared radiation normally invisible to human eyes. In the new infrared image (also taken by the Hubble Space Telescope), the colorful pillars fade to ghosts of their former selves, revealing a kaleidoscope of newborn stars within the dust.
The Pillars, which span about 5 light-years in length (that's about 3.5 times the diameter of our solar system), are natural incubators of star formation, thanks to their many dense pockets of hydrogen gas, according to NASA. As ever greater quantities of gas and dust pile into a single, gravitationally-dense area, that area heats up under the weight of the gathering material and may turn into the seeds of a star — also called a "protostar." If a protostar continues gathering mass and increasing in temperature enough to spark a nuclear reaction at its core, a full-fledged star is born.
As this image shows, the most active star-forming region within the Pillars is located at the tip of the largest pillar, which shimmers with what appears to be gauzy blue radiation. These dense, dusty regions shadow and cool the gas below them, according to NASA, allowing the lower reaches of the pillars to maintain their long, wispy figures.
For now, anyway. According to NASA astronomer Paul Scowen, who led the initial Hubble exploration of the Eagle Nebula in 1995, as the stars in the tip of the Pillars grow ever larger, their radiation will become stronger, slowly destroying the gas around them.
"The gaseous pillars are actually getting ionized, a process by which electrons are stripped off of atoms, and heated up by radiation from the massive stars," Scowen said in a 2015 statement from NASA. "The stars' strong winds and barrage of charged particles … are literally sandblasting away the tops of these pillars."
Perhaps that makes images like this one even more special. We will never see the Pillars of Creation exactly like this ever again.
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Originally published on Live Science.
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Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.
5 light years is 3.5 times the diameter of our solar system??? That's almost 4 orders of magnitude off.Reply
Did anyone check the basic math in this article?
Our Solar System = 1.5 light years in diameter
Pillar length = 5 light years
Math = Pillars are 3.5x larger
What? Elephant trunks in the Eagle Nebula?Reply
Better to recognize wings of an eagle.
Our solar system is on the order of 15 billion kilometers across, which is about 14 light-hours, which is less than 1% of a light-year.Reply
EnriqueEstaban, you really think our solar system is 1.5 light YEARS in diameter?Reply
The Pillars are called Elephant Trunks. The Pillars aren't the nebula. They are inside the nebula.Lucille said:What? Elephant trunks in the Eagle Nebula?
Better to recognize wings of an eagle.
Do those look like wings to you?
Google it and inform me. I already did.Randomizer said:EnriqueEstaban, you really think our solar system is 1.5 light YEARS in diameter?
The Solar system is larger than Pluto's distance.Alan W said:Our solar system is on the order of 15 billion kilometers across, which is about 14 light-hours, which is less than 1% of a light-year.
The author is using the definition of solar system diameter = 2 x distance from sun to Oort cloud; that's about 1.5 light years. Old school thinking (2 x distance to outer planets) = about 0.0012 light yearsReply
EnriqueEsteban said:The Solar system is larger than Pluto's distance.
Yes, after a little reading, it's not as simple as I was thinking. I like the 'outer-planets' definition, but some definitions go beyond the heliosphere out to the "Hill Sphere" radius and out to the theoretical/hypothetical Oort cloud. If that's part of the solar system then it is indeed 1.5 LY or more.