This visualisation of the three-dimensional structure of the Pillars of Creation within the star formation region Messier 16 (also called the Eagle Nebula) is based on new observations of the object using the MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. The pillars actually consist of several distinct pieces on either side of the star cluster NGC 6611. In this illustration, the relative distance between the pillars along the line of sight is not to scale. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

This visualisation of the three-dimensional structure of the Pillars of Creation within the star formation region Messier 16 (also called the Eagle Nebula) is based on new observations of the object using the MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. The pillars actually consist of several distinct pieces on either side of the star cluster NGC 6611. In this illustration, the relative distance between the pillars along the line of sight is not to scale. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

New study suggests that iconic structures more aptly named the Pillars of Destruction

The original Hubble Space Telescope image of the famous Pillars of Creation was taken two decades ago and immediately became one of its most famous and evocative pictures. Since then, these billowing clouds, which extend over a few light-years, have awed scientists and the public alike.

This colour view was created from observations of the Pillars of Creation made with the MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. The parts of the three-dimensional MUSE data cube that correspond to emission from different chemical elements in the clouds have been extracted and combined to create this colour view of the region. Credit: ESO

This colour view was created from observations of the Pillars of Creation made with the MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. The parts of the three-dimensional MUSE data cube that correspond to emission from different chemical elements in the clouds have been extracted and combined to create this view. Credit: ESO

The jutting structures, along with the nearby star cluster, NGC 6611, are parts of a star formation region called the Eagle Nebula, also known as Messier 16 or M16. The nebula and its associated objects are located about 7000 light-years away in the constellation of Serpens (The Serpent).

The Pillars of Creation are a classic example of the column-like shapes that develop in the giant clouds of gas and dust that are the birthplaces of new stars. The columns arise when immense, freshly formed blue–white O and B stars give off intense ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds that blow away less dense materials from their vicinity.

This dramatic night time view shows the MUSE instrument in the dome of the VLT Unit Telescope 4. The telescope tube appears at the top of the picture and MUSE is seen glinting in the foreground. The Milky Way shines in through the open doors of the dome. Credit: ESO/Ghaouti Hansali/Fernando Selman

This night time view shows the MUSE instrument in the dome of the VLT Unit Telescope 4. The telescope tube appears at the top of the picture and MUSE is seen glinting in the foreground. Credit: ESO/Ghaouti Hansali/Fernando Selman

Denser pockets of gas and dust, however, can resist this erosion for longer. Behind such thicker dust pockets, material is shielded from the harsh, withering glare of O and B stars. This shielding creates dark “tails” or “elephant trunks”, which we see as the dusky body of a pillar, that point away from the brilliant stars.

ESO’s MUSE instrument on the Very Large Telescope has now helped illustrate the ongoing evaporation of the Pillars of Creation in unprecedented detail, revealing their orientation.

MUSE has shown that the tip of the left pillar is facing us, atop a pillar that is is actually situated behind NGC 6611, unlike the other pillars. This tip is bearing the brunt of the radiation from NGC 6611’s stars, and as a result looks brighter to our eyes than the bottom left, middle and right pillars, whose tips are all pointed away from our view.

Astronomers hope to better understand how young O and B stars like those in NGC 6611 influence the formation of subsequent stars. Numerous studies have identified protostars forming in these clouds — they are indeed Pillars of Creation. The new study also reports fresh evidence for two gestating stars in the left and middle pillars as well as a jet from a young star that had escaped attention up to now.

For more stars to form in environments like the Pillars of Creation, it is a race against time as intense radiation from the powerful stars that are already shining continues to grind away at the pillars.

By measuring the Pillars of Creation’s rate of evaporation, MUSE has given astronomers a time frame for when the pillars will be no more. They shed about 70 times the mass of the Sun every million years or so. Based on the their present mass of about 200 times that of the Sun, the Pillars of Creation have an expected lifetime of perhaps three million more years — an eyeblink in cosmic time. It seems that an equally apt name for these iconic cosmic columns might be the Pillars of Destruction.

This view shows how the MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope has created a three-dimensional view of the iconic Pillars of Creation in the star-forming region Messier 16. Each pixel in the data corresponds to a spectrum that reveals a host of information about the motions and physical conditions of the gas at that point. The slices of the data corresponding to some of the different chemical elements present are highlighted. Credit: ESO

This view shows how the MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope has created a three-dimensional view of the iconic Pillars of Creation in the star-forming region Messier 16. Each pixel in the data corresponds to a spectrum that reveals a host of information about the motions and physical conditions of the gas at that point. The slices of the data corresponding to some of the different chemical elements present are highlighted. Credit: ESO

More information

This research was presented in a paper entitled “The Pillars of Creation revisited with MUSE: gas kinematics and high-mass stellar feedback traced by optical spectroscopy” by A. F. McLeod et al., to appear in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society on 30 April 2015.

The team is composed of A. F. Mc Leod (ESO, Garching, Germany), J. E. Dale (Universitäts-Sternwarte München, München, Germany; Excellence Cluster Universe, Garching bei München, Germany), A. Ginsburg (ESO), B. Ercolano (Universitats-Sternwarte München,; Excellence Cluster Universe), M. Gritschneder (Universitats-Sternwarte München), S. Ramsay (ESO) and L. Testi (ESO; INAF/Osservatorio Astrofisico di Arcetri, Firenze, Italy).

ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is a major partner in ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre European Extremely Large Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.