Stunning Views of the ‘Pillars of Creation’

Two of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) orbiting observatories captured spectacular views of the gas pillars in the Eagle Nebula (M16) that were the subject of the iconic 1995 Hubble images dubbed “Pillars of Creation,” which became one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. Now, two of ESA’s orbiting observatories —Stunning Herschel and XMM-Newton photos— revealed new insights this enigmatic star-forming region.

The pillars are only a small portion of the extensive nebulous region imaged in far-infrared by ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory, which shows cool dust and gas tendrils being carved away by the hot stars seen in the X-ray image from XMM-Newton. The wide-field optical image from the ESO MPG telescope puts the pillars into context against the full scale of the nebula, which is over 75 light-years across. 

The Eagle Nebula is 6500 light-years away in the constellation of Serpens. It contains a young hot star cluster, NGC6611, visible with modest back-garden telescopes, that is sculpting and illuminating the surrounding gas and dust, resulting in a huge hollowed-out cavity and pillars, each several light-years long.

The Hubble image hinted at new stars being born within the pillars, deeply inside small clumps known as ‘evaporating gaseous globules’ or EGGs. Owing to obscuring dust, Hubble’s visible light picture was unable to see inside and prove that young stars were indeed forming.   The ESA Herschel Space Observatory’s new image shows the pillars and the wide field of gas and dust around them. Captured in far-infrared wavelengths, the image allows astronomers to see inside the pillars and structures in the region.

In parallel, a new multi-energy X-ray image from ESA’s XMM-Newton telescope shows those hot young stars responsible for carving the pillars. Combining the new space data with near-infrared images from the European Southern Observatory's (ESO's) Very Large Telescope at Paranal, Chile, and visible-light data from its Max Planck Gesellschaft 2.2m diameter telescope at La Silla, Chile, we see this iconic region of the sky in a uniquely beautiful and revealing way. 

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