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'Pillars of Creation' reloaded

ESA

This picture combines a far-infrared view from the Herschel Space Observatory with an X-ray view from XMM-Newton to show how the hot young stars detected by the X-ray observations are sculpting and interacting with the surrounding ultra-cool gas and dust, which provide the critical material for star formation.




The Hubble Space Telescope's "Pillars of Creation" picture is arguably the best-known astronomical image of the 20th century, but can you spot the pillars in the 21st-century version? Those well-known towers of gas and dust are dwarfed by the full majesty of the Eagle Nebula in a view that's based on far-infrared observations from the European Space Agency's Herschel Space Observatory, plus X-ray readings from the XMM-Newton probe.


NASA / ESA / STScI / ASU

This 1995 Hubble Space Telescope image of the "Pillars of Creation" is probably the most famous astronomical image of the 20th century. Taken in visible light using a combination of SII/H-alpha and OIII filters, it shows a part of the Eagle Nebula where new stars are forming. The tallest pillar is around 4 light-years high.

The Eagle Nebula, 6,500 light-years away in the constellation Serpens, is one of the closest cradles of starbirth. Radiation from a young star cluster known as NGC 6611 is blasting away at the surrounding pillars of gas and dust —and sparking new star systems inside clumps known as evaporating gaseous globules, or EGGs.

Hubble's visible-light image, captured in 1995, showed the pillars in detail. It also provided an iconic image of cosmic structure for ages to come. But it couldn't reveal exactly what was inside the EGGs' dusty sheaths.

In 2001, a near-infrared image from the ISAAC instrument, at the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope facility in Chile, cut through the dust and revealed some of the infant stars within their EGGs.

Researchers determined that 11 of the 73 EGGs in the Hubble image clearly had stars associated with them. Only one of these stars had been previously been seen in the Hubble images, and another five EGGs were noted as possibly containing stars.

VLT / ISAAC / AIP / ESO

The 8.2-meter VLT's ANTU telescope imaged the famous "Pillars of Creation" region and its surroundings in near-infrared using the ISAAC instrument. This enabled astronomers to penetrate the obscuring dust in their search to detect newly formed stars. The near-infrared results showed that 11 of the Pillars' 73 evaporating gaseous globules (or EGGs) possibly contained stars, and that the tips of the pillars contain stars and nebulosity not seen in the Hubble image

The new far-infrared view from Herschel provides even more detail about the structure of the pillars and the young stars within. Meanwhile, the view from XMM-Newton highlights the points of strong X-ray emission within the nebula. The European Space Agency says the new imagery supports the view that one of the stars in the NGC 6611 clusters went supernova, sending out a shock wave that is about to tear the pillars apart.

In fact, it's probably already happened — but because of the distance separating us from the nebula, we just haven't seen it yet. Astronomers expect that we'll witness the destruction of the Pillars of Creation sometime in the next few hundred years. So enjoy the view while you can.

Could you make out the pillars in the top picture? This video puts all the imagery in perspective:

This ESA video shows the Pillars of Creation in a variety of wavelengths.

More about the Pillars of Creation:


Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.