Astronomers from the European Southern Observatory have used data from the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument to compile the first 3D image of the Pillars of Creation, uncovering some key characteristics of the structures in the process. A shot of the magnificent formations composed of interstellar gas was first captured by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995, and remains one of the most iconic images of space exploration to date.
Located in the Eagle nebula, the pillars gained their distinctive appearance when enormous, newly-created O type and B type stars emitted a powerful mixture of ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds that have served to sculpt the surrounding matter. The distinctive pillars that we see today are made from denser pockets of material that are better equipped to resist the violent conditions created by the young stars.
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3D visualization of the structure of the iconic Pillars of Creation, constructed from data collected by MUSE and the VLT (Image: ESO, M. Kornmesser)
The ESO's MUSE instrument, mounted on the Very Large Telescope based at the Paranal Observatory, Chile, has succeeded in discerning the distribution of the pillars in space. According to the new observations, the far left hand pillar is actually located behind the star cluster NGC 6611. The tip of the pillar appears brighter than the rest of the pillars, as it is bearing the brunt of the radiation from a number of O-type and B-type stars present in NGC 6611. Conversely, the tips of the other pillars, which are located Earth-side of NGC 6611, appear to be darker as they are angled away.
The recent observations also highlighted the presence of a number of protostars forming in the clouds. However, as the existing stellar giants carve away ever more of the structures, further star-birth will become increasingly rare.
From the new observations, astronomers estimate that the pillars lose around 70 times the mass of the Sun every million years, and that the radiation and stellar winds flowing from the enormous newly-minted stars will fully evaporate the pillars in only three million years – the blink of an eye in cosmic terms.
The following video courtesy of the ESO and M. Kornmesser contains a visualization of the structure of the Pillars of Creation.