Researchers have been able to map how the Eagle Nebula's Pillars of Creation are distributed in three-dimensional space for the first time, using new data from the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer instrument on the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile.
Given the tremendous size of this section of the Eagle Nebula and its distance from Earth (around 7,000 light-years), researchers previously thought we were unlikely to ever see the shape of it in anything other than two flat dimensions, as in Hubble's famous photograph.
The Eagle Nebula is a region rich in stellar formation, with the cluster NGC 6611, between 1 million and 2 million years old and containing the hot, bright blue O-type and B-type stars at its heart. As these new stars formed, stellar winds tore at the surrounding gas, carving out the iconic shape of the Pillars, where the denser pockets of dust and gas inside resisted the erosive forces. The three tall fingers stretch out into space, the longest of which measures some four light-years.
According to the data released today, the tallest and left-most pillar is the farthest from Earth, the tip facing towards us. As the closest point to the star cluster, it bears the brunt of the stellar winds, with the radiation making it glow more brightly than the other two pillars, whose tips point away from Earth.
The three pillars appear to be around the edge of a curved formation, like the fingers of a hand.
In addition, the team found two stars forming, one in the left and one in the middle pillar. They also spotted a jet from a young star that hadn't been seen until now. These findings could help astronomers understand how young O and B stars influence the formation of subsequent stars.
MUSE has calculated that the Pillars shed material roughly 70 times the mass of the sun, or 70 solar masses, every million years or so. Based on their current mass of 200 solar masses, the Pillars have around three million years before they're eroded entirely by the stellar winds of NGC 6611.
Sadly, it is possible that the Pillars of Creation have already been destroyed. In 2007, an image of the nebula led astronomers to speculate that the formation had already been destroyed some 6,000 years ago. A region of the nebula looked like it had been scorched by a supernova, and it's possible that supernova shockwave could have ripped apart the Pillars of Creation.
However, another astronomer believes that a supernova remnant from such an event would emit much stronger radio waves and X-rays than the image shows. Because the pillars are 7,000 light-years away, the theory will not be confirmed or debunked for another thousand years.