See Hubble’s ‘Pillars Of Creation’ In 3D

This latest photo of the Pillars of Creation was taken just this year by the Hubble Space Telescope and captures dark gas clouds silhouetted against a glowing backdrop. The dust and gas in the pillars is seared by the intense radiation from young stars and eroded by strong winds from massive nearby stars. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team

They’ll all be gone in 3 million years, so enjoy them while you can. I’m talking about  the “Pillars of Creation” — shown here in one of the Hubble Space Telescope’s most iconic images — that form part of the Eagle Nebula in the constellation Serpens.

A wide view of the pillars shows they're part of cloud of a star-forming region called M16 or the Eagle Nebula. The star cluster NGC 6611, responsible for
In this wide view you can see that the pillars are part of a larger star-forming region called M16 or the Eagle Nebula located 7,000 light years away in Serpens the Serpent. The star cluster NGC 6611 (upper right) formed earlier from the same cloud of gas and dust. Its largest stars now bombard the remaining gas, sculpting the famous pillars. Credit: NASA/ESA

Three giant columns of cold gas and dust form a fist of cosmic solidarity, thrust into the heavens in a show of defiance at their inevitable dissolution. Hot, young stars in the nearby cluster NGC 6611 give off scorching ultraviolet radiation and gusty stellar winds that have blown away less dense materials from their vicinity, carving what remains into striking fingerlike shapes.

The pillars are made of thicker, denser dust that resist the corrosive radiation and winds. That’s why they’re still around … for a time.

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.
This three-dimensional structure of the Pillars of Creation (three narrow columns and one blunt) within the star formation region M16 is based on new observations using the MUSE instrument on VLT in Chile. The pillars consist of several distinct pieces on either side of the star cluster NGC 6611. Each pixel in the data gathered by MUSE reveals information about the motions and physical conditions of the gas at that point, providing astronomers the information needed to construct a 3D view. Not to scale. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Recently, astronomers using the MUSE instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) produced the first three-dimensional view of the famous scene. The VLT comprises four separate telescopes, each with its own 322.8-inch (8.2-meter) mirror, while MUSE can precisely measure the rainbow spectrum of light of each pixel in the image sensor to create a 3D image.

MUSE has shown that the tip of the left pillar is facing us, atop a column that’s actually situated behind NGC 6611 unlike the other pillars. This tip is bearing the brunt of the radiation from the cluster’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.


The Pillars of Creation in 3D

You’ll see in the video that the prong farthest to the right is closest, while the tall one with its top pointing in our direction is furthest. For reference, the  tallest pillar measures about 4 light years from top to bottom or about twice the height of the rightmost pillar.

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, they have an expected lifetime of about 3 million more years — an astronomical blink of the eye. Like many of the great columns that once housed the great palaces of Rome, they too will fall one day.

4 Responses

  1. Edward M. Boll

    Later this week, I am planning on getting my old 10 power binoculars out and see if I can still see Lovejoy with them.

  2. Joe Mama

    Didn’t they already get blown away by a nova and we’ve just not seen it happen yet?

    1. astrobob

      Joe,
      No, there’s almost certainly much the way we see them. Since they’re only 7,000 light years away, that amount of time – 7,000 years – is just a small fraction of their expected lifetime of 3 million years. Now it they were 3 million light years away, then yes, they would probably be gone if we could somehow zoom in close for a look.

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