Skip to content
Starts With A Bang

The Pillars Of Creation Haven’t Been Destroyed, Say New NASA Images

A new set of images from NASA’s Chandra X-ray observatory shows us what we’ve never seen before.

The Pillars of Creation, 7,000 light years away in the Eagle Nebula, represents one of Hubble’s most iconic images.

The Eagle Nebula contains thousands of new stars, a brilliant central star cluster, and various evaporating gaseous globules containing active star formation and brilliant young stars of their own. (NASA / ESA & HUBBLE; WIKISKY TOOL)

The full nebula itself is a race: evaporative radiation from new stars fights against the active, ongoing star-formation from the nebula’s cool gas.

This image compares two views of the Eagle Nebula’s Pillars of Creation taken with Hubble 20 years apart. The newer image, on the left, captures almost exactly the same region as in the 1995, on the right. However, the newer image uses Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, installed in 2009, to capture light from glowing oxygen, hydrogen, and sulphur with greater clarity. Having both images allows astronomers to study how the structure of the pillars is changing over time, and showcases one of the finest examples of what we can learn by doing astronomy in space. (WFC3: NASA, ESA/HUBBLE AND THE HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM WFPC2: NASA, ESA/HUBBLE, STSCI, J. HESTER AND P. SCOWEN (ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY))

First observed by Hubble in the mid-1990s, our improved technology and the passage of time has given us an improved view of this system.

Subtle changes in the gas structure of the top pillar showcase an outflow that likely originates from a newborn, massive star inside the pillar. This is consistent with the location of a new star measured by Chandra. (NASA, ESA, AND THE HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM (STSCI/AURA))

New stars are clearly being born, as stellar outflows and jets permeate the gas.

The infrared view of the pillars allows the newly forming stars, inside the pillars, to be seen. The blue signature showcases gas in the process of evaporating; the faintness of that signal indicates a relatively slow rate of evaporation. It should take at least 100,000+ years for the pillars to evaporate completely. (NASA, ESA/HUBBLE AND THE HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM; ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: P. SCOWEN (ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY, USA) AND J. HESTER (FORMERLY OF ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY, USA))

Near-infrared observations can see through the dust, revealing a glittering tapestry of young, hot stars inside.

The VLT’s ANTU telescope imaged the famous Pillars of Creation region and its surroundings in near-infrared in 2012. 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 73 evaporating gas globules detected possibly contained stars, and that the tips of the pillars contain stars and nebulosity not seen in the Hubble image. (VLT/ISAAC/MCCAUGHREAN & ANDERSEN/AIP/ESO)

But at longer wavelengths, cooler-temperature objects show up.

The hot dust, in red, imaged by Spitzer in 2007 was attributed to a likely supernova from 8000–9000 years ago. However, other causes of dust warming are plausible, and if a supernova were the culprit, detailed observations in other wavelengths would reveal it. (SPITZER SPACE TELESCOPE / IRAC / MIPS; NASA / JPL-CALTECH / N. FLAGEY (IAS/SSC) AND THE MIPSGAL SCIENCE TEAM)

Mid-infrared light revealed that a diffuse heat source was warming the nebula, suggesting a recent supernova.

The Herschel Space Observatory captured this image of the Eagle nebula, with its intensely cold gas and dust. The “Pillars of Creation,” made famous by NASA’S Hubble Space Telescope in 1995, are seen inside the circle. The different colors represent gas that’s extremely cool: between 10 and 40 K. (ESA/HERSCHEL/PACS/SPIRE/HILL, MOTTE, HOBYS KEY PROGRAMME CONSORTIUM)

While the far-infrared showed where the gas is evaporating, we needed X-rays to know if the pillars were being destroyed.

The star formation processes occurring inside the pillars of creation, as well as anyplace else inside the Eagle Nebula, are revealed due to the unique viewpoint of NASA’s Chandra X-ray telescope back in 2007, with the original 1995 view overlaid for position. (X-RAY: NASA/CXC/U.COLORADO/LINSKY ET AL.; OPTICAL: NASA/ESA/STSCI/ASU/J.HESTER & P.SCOWEN)

As first revealed by Chandra over a decade ago, new stars can be seen forming inside the nebula, behind and inside the pillars.

X-ray emissions that are large, extended, and structure-rich highlight a variety of supernovae seen in the galaxy. Some of these are only a few hundred years old; others are many thousands. The absence of X-rays indicates the lack of a supernova. (NASA/CXC/SAO)

Fortunately, Chandra has seen many supernova remnants; we know what they look like.

Using Chandra, researchers detected over 1,700 individual sources of X-rays in the Eagle Nebula. Optical and infrared identifications with stars were used to sort out chance interlopers in the foreground or background, and to determine that more than two-thirds of the sources are likely young stars that are members of the NGC 6611 cluster within the Eagle Nebula. (ASA/CXC/INAF/M.GUARCELLO ET AL.)

A superior, new X-ray view reveals only point sources: stars and stellar corpses.

Chandra’s unique ability to resolve and locate X-ray sources made it possible to identify hundreds of very young stars, and those still in the process of forming (known as “protostars”). Infrared observations from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the European Southern Observatory indicate that 219 of the X-ray sources in the Eagle Nebula are young stars surrounded by disks of dust and gas and 964 are young stars without these disks. The number of supernova remnants? Zero. (X-RAY: NASA/CXC/INAF/M.GUARCELLO ET AL.; OPTICAL: NASA/STSCI)

There was no recent supernova. The pillars only evaporate slowly.

Mostly Mute Monday tells the astronomical story of an object, class, or phenomenon in images, visuals, and no more than 200 words. The original Chandra release can be found here. Talk less; smile more.

Ethan Siegel is the author of Beyond the Galaxy and Treknology. You can pre-order his third book, currently in development: the Encyclopaedia Cosmologica.


Up Next