NASA Releases New View of Iconic Pillars of Creation in 3D

Revealing protostars and giant clouds of gas and dust where new stars were born

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. Image Credit: European Southern Observatory
This visualization 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.
Image Credit: European Southern Observatory

Space news (August 18, 2015) – 7,000 light-years away toward constellation Serpens (The Serpent); the iconic Pillars of Creation

Astronomers working with the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) on the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) have released the first 3D image of the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula (M16 or Messier 16).

 The iconic first image of the Pillars of Creation, to the left in the image below, was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995, but the latest image shown on the right below is both bigger and shows new details. An immense jet from a young star, intense radiation and stellar winds from brilliant O and B type suns sculpture the dusty Pillars of Creation over time. Three million years in the future the pillars will be totally evaporated by these forces.
Undersea coral? Enchanted castles? Space serpents? These eerie, dark pillar-like structures are actually columns of cool interstellar hydrogen gas and dust that are also incubators for new stars. The pillars protrude from the interior wall of a dark molecular cloud like stalagmites from the floor of a cavern.

The Pillars of Creation are a stellar feature that is more common than people first assume. Similar structures and shapes have been and are quite frequently seen during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. The columns of the Pillars of Creation were formed when intense radiation and stellar winds from huge, newly formed blue-white O and B suns blew away less dense material in the region of space surrounding them.

A study has shown the very top of the left pillar in the image is pointing toward us and sitting on top of another pillar behind nearby stellar cluster NGC 6611. This top portion of the left pillar is bearing the majority of withering radiation from nearby stars and this is why it looks brighter to our eyes compared to the other pillars.

I’m impressed by how transitory these structures are. They are actively being ablated away before our very eyes. The ghostly bluish haze around the dense edges of the pillars is material getting heated up and evaporating away into space. We have caught these pillars at a very unique and short-lived moment in their evolution,” explained Paul Scowen of Arizona State University in Tempe. He and astronomer Jeff Hester, formerly of Arizona State University, led the original Hubble observations of the Eagle Nebula.

Scowen said. “The gas is not being passively heated up and gently wafting away into space. 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. And then they are being eroded by the stars’ strong winds and a barrage of charged particles, which are literally sandblasting away the tops of these pillars.   

The denser material left behind acted as a shield against the harsh, withering glare of nearby brilliant young stars, and formed the shape of the region. The dark “tails” or “elephant trunks” viewed as the dark body of the pillars point away from the intense radiation and stellar winds of nearby brilliant stars.

Now, astronomers plan on studying how newborn O and B stars in NGC 6611 influence the growth of further generations of stars. Previous studies have detected protostars forming within the clouds of NGC 6611. The latest study also provided evidence for protostars forming in the middle and left clouds of the Pillars of Creation and there are also probably other protostars and young stars hidden from view within the region.

Astronomers want to study star-forming regions like the Pillars of Creation in order to better understand the conditions in which stars like our own Sun formed. Current evidence points to the early solar system being bombarded with radioactive shrapnel from a nearby supernova. This indicates we formed in a star-forming region with young stars massive enough to produce powerful ionizing radiation like we see in the Eagle Nebula.

“That’s the only way the nebula from which the sun was born could have been exposed to a supernova that quickly, in the short period of time that represents, because supernovae only come from massive stars, and those stars only live a few tens of millions of years,” Scowen explained. “What that means is when you look at the environment of the Eagle Nebula or other star-forming regions, you’re looking at exactly the kind of nascent environment that our sun formed in.”

You can find out more about the MUSE here.

Learn more about the European Southern Observatory here.

Discover more about the Hubble Space Telescope and the things we have discovered here.

Learn more about the formation of stars here.

Read about the surprises planetary scientists discovered during the recent flyby of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.

Learn more about how exploding stars seed the universe with the building blocks of life.

Read about how NASA scientists used the Hubble Space Telescope to map temperatures and water vapor on “a hot Jupiter-class exoplanet“.

How Stars are Born

Stars begin life as clouds of cold gas and dust that transform into blazing hot fireballs

Deep within star birst galaxy Messier 82 NASA astronomers believe young stars are being formed at a rate ten times beyond anything they have seen in our own Milky Way Galaxy
Deep within star burst galaxy Messier 82 NASA astronomers believe young stars are being formed at a rate ten times beyond anything they have seen in our own Milky Way Galaxy

Star dust, star dust, burning bright

Amid the glare of ancient light

Eternity stares back from the past

Reborn we’ll be one day at last

NASA astronomy: stellar astrophysics

Astronomy questions and answers – September 19, 2013 – Walk out to a dark viewing spot anywhere on the Earth on a clear night and look up at the night sky. Your eyes will take in ancient light from stars in the Milky Way that covers the whole sky above you. Deep within the stellar nurseries of the Milky Way new stars are being formed using processes NASA astronomers are currently studying in an attempt to understand how stars are born. Star forming processes responsible for the formation of the stars you see in the night sky. Processes they can see at work in the stellar nurseries of the Milky Way, like the Orion Nebula (M42) and Cygnus X.

NASA astronomers used both the Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer Space Telescope to create this image of the chaos of star birth at the center of this nebula
NASA astronomers used both the Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer Space Telescope to create this image of the chaos of star birth at the center of this nebula

Journey with me to stellar nurseries deep within the dark regions of the Milky Way, the dark patches you can see in the night sky above. The birthing grounds of young stars in the Milky Way, these dark patches in the night sky are in fact clouds of interstellar gas that appear dark because they block the starlight from distant stars. Astronomers believe deep within the birthing grounds of the Milky Way, new stars are being formed at the rate of about 2 or 3 new stars each year.

This image taken by the Herschel Telescope of a massive star forming region within this constellation
This image taken by the Herschel Telescope of a massive star forming region within this constellation

Star formation theories

Present theories on star formation put forth by NASA astronomers show star formation is a complicated process affected by nearby massive stars, other star forming regions, and even the spiral structure of the Milky Way. These theories only become more complicated when astronomers look at the formation of groups of stars.

In order to try to simulate star formation, some astronomers use sophisticated computer models, while others incorporate observations in different wavelengths and use them to create three-dimensional images of the sky. Working together these two different groups of astronomers are trying to determine exactly how stars are born.

NASA astronomers working on present theories of star formation think the Milky Way is filled with clouds of gas and dust they call the interstellar medium. They also think slight over densities within these clouds of gas and dust could trigger star formation, over densities that could be produced by the turbulent forces present in these clouds of gas and dust. Astronomers studying slight over densities within star forming clouds of gas and dust believe these slightly denser regions could eventually become main sequence stars within a few million years.

Some NASA astronomers believe the intense radiation from groups of hot, bright stars located close to one another could create the necessary turbulence in the interstellar medium to trigger star formation. Other astronomers believe nearby galaxies and even large clouds of gas and dust could cause turbulence in the interstellar medium which could also be part of the star forming process. Many astronomers also believe the resulting shock wave after a supernova could create spiral density waves capable of compressing material and initiating star formation.

Gravity at Work

Present theories on the formation of main sequence stars being proposed by NASA astronomers involves the force of gravity. Gravity pulls the gas and dust within the interstellar medium into denser regions, which results in a cloud increasing in size and contracting. The rotation velocity of the cloud increases as it contracts due to conservation of angular momentum, in the same way a figure skater’s spin speed increases as they bring their arms closer to their body.

At the same time the temperature in the core of the cloud increases as it shrinks due to the force of gravity. The charged particles within the cloud at this time can only move in specific directions in the magnetic field in the region. This results in the rotational velocity of the cloud slowing, but not stopping, otherwise astronomers think stars would never form in these dense clouds of gas and dust.

In the case of main sequence stars astronomers think regions of dense clouds of gas and dust would begin to contract to an area the size of our solar system tens of thousands of years after beginning to slow. At this time astronomers think the temperature at the centre of dense clouds of dust and gas would be in the region of 10,000 kelvins. They call the central region of such a cloud at this time a protostar.

Protostars

NASA astronomers think there could be a weird protostar lurking within the R Corona Australis star-forming region, about 500 light years from Earth
NASA astronomers think there could be a weird protostar lurking within the R Corona Australis star-forming region, about 500 light years from Earth

Protostars at this time in their life cycle are often more luminous than the main sequence star they eventually become, because they have a greater surface from which to radiate energy. This brightness allows NASA astronomers to view protostars as they continue to gravitationally attract more gas and dust, shrink and heat up internally. The luminosity of a protostar begins to decrease as it’s outer surface shrinks under the force of gravity. Astronomers believe the cloud and protostar eventually spin faster and flatten out into a disk.

Astronomers using data collected by several different astronomical instruments recently presented far-infrared images of three Class 0 protostar systems in Perseus: L1448C, the triple system L1448N, and IRAS 03282+3035. Seven hundred and fifty light-years from Earth, all three of these protostars were seen powering bipolar molecular outflows, which astronomers think are in fact epic jets of water being thrust into interstellar space. Calculations by NASA astronomers indicates these jets of water are shooting out into interstellar space at speeds of around 120,000 miles per hour and at a rate equal to about 100 million times the volume of water flowing in the Amazon every second of the day.

Astronomers think these jets of water and material help to channel radiation and mass away from the protostar, which helps to clear the central region of debris and reveal the protostar. They also think it could be possible the galaxy was seeded with water through this process, which might change thoughts on the possibility of life in the galaxy. The remaining material is then accreted by the protostar, or forms part of a residual disk, which NASA astronomers think could form planets.

The core of a protostar will reach 1 million kelvin at sometime during the contraction and heating up of the cloud, at which time it will begin fusing deuterium to helium. Deuterium is the easiest nucleus to fuse, so it makes sense this would be the starting point. Once the core has contracted enough to reach a density where the core reaches 10 million degrees kelvins, hydrogen nuclei will begin fusing into helium. At this point star astronomers also think a protostar will reach an equilibrium point where the radiative energy from fusion balances gravitational pull of its mass. This new star is now a main sequence star, which has formed over millions of years.

Simulating the Birth of a Star

The process of star birth takes millions of years to complete, so how do astronomers determine the way outside factors affect the process by which new stars are born? Modern astronomers are presently using supercomputers to help simulate star formation models in the hope they can determine why the mass distribution of newly formed stars appears to be universal. They want to understand why this average mass of newly formed stars exists. They also want to know the process by which it occurs.

Present star formation models take into account the effects of thermodynamics, magnetic fields, radiative processes, and of course gravity. Star astronomers are also trying to determine other factors they need to include in models, like the way new stars affect their own star forming environments. This includes factors like young stars heating up the gas and dust surrounding them and moving gas and dust around through bipolar molecular flows.

The key question NASA astronomers want to answer at this point is whether or not present star formation models can reproduce the properties of exact parts of the star forming process. Astronomers will also want to determine the most massive star that can be formed depending on the size of a cloud of dust and gas. They’ll try to find answers by looking at the chemical composition, magnetic fields, ionization, age and other factors of large clouds of star forming dust and gas in the night sky.

Peering into Stellar Nurseries

How do NASA astronomers look into the heart of stellar nurseries in the Milky Way? Astronomers use instruments designed to detect specific wavelengths of light radiation emitted during the formation of new stars. During the beginning stages of star birth a new star emits radio waves as it contracts astronomers look for as an indicator of new star formation. At this time the core of a contracting cloud of gas and dust is too cold to emit visible and infrared radiation.

Once the cloud forms a protostar it will begin to emit light radiation, which will be blocked by the material surrounding the new star. The light radiation emitted by a protostar is absorbed by the surrounding material, which radiates infrared radiation toward Earth NASA astronomers detect using space and ground-based telescopes specifically designed for the job.

Astronomers have used the Spitzer Space Telescope to view hundreds of protostars forming in large clouds of gas and dust in the stellar nurseries of the Milky Way. In the future they’ll use instruments and telescopes designed to detect millimetre waves in the microwave range in order to get a better view of the beginning stages of star birth. To date astronomers report detecting a compact source embedded in cold gas within stellar nurseries only detectable at these wavelengths.

NASA astronomers trying to piece together the puzzle of star formation in the Milky Way are also using reconstructed images of star-forming regions from past observations. Using 2-D images, positional data, and velocities for an entire cloud, they have been able to create 3-D models researchers can then analyze. 3-D models that show unforeseen structures hidden within stellar nurseries and even regions of star formation they weren’t expecting to see.

Click this link to watch a You Tube videos on how a star is born

A Star is Born

The Birth of Stars

How massive stars are born

Does the cosmos inspire your imagination. Check out this astronomy blog I have created and let me know what you think? http://astronomytonight.yolasite.com/.

Read about NASA’s Messenger spacecraft and its mission to Mercury

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Read about the supernova astronomers are studying looking for a black hole they think was created during the explosion