In 1995, the Hubble Space Telescope allowed obtaining an image of columns of interstellar gas and dust in the Eagle Nebula. These structures were dubbed the “Pillars of Creation” and the image became one of the most iconic not only among the ones taken by Hubble but among space photographs in general. Now astronomers returned to that region to take a new photograph that, thanks to the updated instrument, is in high definition so it provides details never before seen in visible and infrared light.
The Eagle Nebula, cataloged as Messier 16 or M16 but also as NGC 6611, is about 5,700 light-years from Earth in the constellation Serpens. It consists of a star cluster containing several regions of gas and dust that are forming new stars. The columns of dark gas associated with the birth of stars led to the nickname “Pillars of Creation”.
The original image of this formation was created by combining 32 pictures taken using the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2. In 2009, during the Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-125 mission, the last service mission to the Hubble was accomplished with the installation of the Wide Field Camera 3. It replaced the previous instrument allowing to obtain images at higher resolution and with a wider field of view.
The new image is better, turning out even more spectacular than the 1995 one. Apparently, little has changed in that gigantic space structure but in fact, the area is very turbulent. The violent ultraviolet radiation causes a strong ionization of the gas because it strips the atoms of their electrons and heats them up. That’s the reason for the brightness of the nebula surrounding the “Pillars of Creation”.
The newborn or very young stars are stripping away the gas from the columns with their stellar winds. In the area, there are some blue supergiants that have extremely strong winds. The new image allows to better assess the details and examine the changes from 1995.
The changes may seem small but the “Pillars of Creation” have a height of up to four years light. Even movements of thousands of kilometers can seem really tiny compared to them. It’s thanks to Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 that it’s now possible to examine that structure much better than before. That last service mission was at one point canceled but due to the protests that came from the scientific world, it was eventually accomplished.
The Eagle Nebula is very interesting from the scientific point of view because it’s a kind of incubator for new stars. A better understanding of the processes that led to the birth of the stars and are leading to the birth of other stars allow to better understand how the Sun and its planets were born.