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Gaseous Pillars in M16 - 2015   Gaseous Pillars in M16   Star-Birth Clouds in M16
Gaseous Pillars and Star-Birth Clouds in M16 - STScI-2015-01, PRC95-44a and PRC95-44b

January 5, 2015

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has revisited the famous Pillars of Creation, revealing a sharper and wider view of the structures in this visible-light image.

Astronomers combined several Hubble exposures to assemble the wider view. The towering pillars are about 5 light-years tall. The dark, finger-like feature at bottom right may be a smaller version of the giant pillars. The new image was taken with Hubble's versatile and sharp-eyed Wide Field Camera 3.

The pillars are bathed in the blistering ultraviolet light from a grouping of young, massive stars located off the top of the image. Streamers of gas can be seen bleeding off the pillars as the intense radiation heats and evaporates it into space. Denser regions of the pillars are shadowing material beneath them from the powerful radiation. Stars are being born deep inside the pillars, which are made of cold hydrogen gas laced with dust. The pillars are part of a small region of the Eagle Nebula, a vast star-forming region 6,500 light-years from Earth.

The colors in the image highlight emission from several chemical elements. Oxygen emission is blue, sulfur is orange, and hydrogen and nitrogen are green.

M16, the Eagle Nebula (NGC 6611), is a Mag. 6 object, about 8x8 arc min. The pillars are near its center, at R.A. 18h 18m 51.06s, Dec. -13° 49' 51.11".

See HubbleSite - NewsCenter - Hubble Goes High Def to Revisit the Iconic 'Pillars of Creation' (HubbleSite - NewsCenter).

November 2, 1995

Don Savage
Headquarters, Washington, DC

Fred Brown
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD

Ray Villard
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD

RELEASE: 95-190

Embryonic Stars Emerge From Interstellar "EGGS"

Dramatic new pictures from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope show newborn stars emerging from dense, compact pockets of interstellar gas called Evaporating Gaseous Globules (EGGs).

Hubble found the "EGGs," appropriately enough, in the Eagle nebula, a nearby star-forming region 7,000 light-years away in the constellation Serpens.

"For a long time astronomers have speculated about what processes control the sizes of stars -- about why stars are the sizes that they are," says Jeff Hester of Arizona State University, Tempe. "Now we seem to be watching at least one such process at work right in front of our eyes."

Pictures taken by Hester and co-investigators with Hubble's Wide Field Planetary Camera-2 (WFPC2) resolve the EGGs at the tip of finger-like features protruding from monstrous columns of cold gas in the Eagle nebula (also called M16 -- 16th object in the Messier catalog).
The columns -- dubbed "elephant trunks" -- protrude from the wall of a vast cloud of molecular hydrogen, like stalagmites rising above the floor of a cavern.
Inside the gaseous towers, which are light-years long, the interstellar gas is dense enough to collapse under its own weight, forming young stars that continue to grow as they accumulate more and more mass from their surroundings.

Hubble gives a clear look at what happens as a torrent of ultraviolet light from nearby young, hot stars heats the gas along the surface of the pillars, "boiling it away" into interstellar space -- a process called "photoevaporation."
The Hubble pictures show photoevaporating gas as ghostly streamers flowing away from the columns.

But not all of the gas boils off at the same rate.
The EGGs, which are denser than their surroundings, are left behind after the gas around them is gone.
"It's a bit like a wind storm in the desert," said Hester.
"As the wind blows away the lighter sand, heavier rocks buried in the sand are uncovered.
But in M16, instead of rocks, the ultraviolet light is uncovering the denser egg-like globules of gas that surround stars that were forming inside the gigantic gas columns."

Some EGGs appear as nothing but tiny bumps on the surface of the columns.
Others have been uncovered more completely, and now resemble "fingers" of gas protruding from the larger cloud. (The fingers are gas that has been protected from photoevaporation by the shadows of the EGGs).
Some EGGs have pinched off completely from the larger column from which they emerged, and now look like teardrops in space.

By stringing together these pictures of EGGs caught at different stages of being uncovered, Hester and his colleagues from the Wide Field and Planetary Camera Investigation Definition Team are getting an unprecedented look at how stars and their surroundings appear before they are truly stars.

"This is the first time that we have actually seen the process of forming stars being uncovered by photoevaporation", Hester emphasized.
"In some ways it seems more like archaeology than astronomy. The ultraviolet light from nearby stars does the digging for us, and we study what is unearthed."

"In a few cases we can see the stars in the EGGs directly in the WFPC2 images," says Hester. "As soon as the star in an EGG is exposed, the object looks something like an ice cream cone, with a newly uncovered star playing the role of the cherry on top."

Ultimately, photoevaporation inhibits the further growth of the embryonic stars by dispersing the cloud of gas they were "feeding" from.
"We believe that the stars in M16 were continuing to grow as more and more gas fell onto them, right up until the moment that they were cut off from that surrounding material by photoevaporation," said Hester.

This process is markedly different from the process that governs the sizes of stars forming in isolation.
Some astronomers believe that, left to its own devices, a star will continue to grow until it nears the point where nuclear fusion begins in its interior.
When this happens, the star begins to blow a strong "wind" that clears away the residual material.
Hubble has imaged this process in detail in so-called Herbig-Haro objects.

Hester also speculated that photoevaporation might actually inhibit the formation of planets around such stars. "It is not at all clear from the new data that the stars in M16 have reached the point where they have formed the disks that go on to become solar systems", said Hester, "and if these disks haven't formed yet, they never will."

Hester plans to use Hubble's high resolution to probe other nearby star-forming regions to look for similar structures. "Discoveries about the nature of the M16 EGGs might lead astronomers to rethink some of their ideas about the environments of stars forming in other regions, such as the Orion Nebula", he predicted.

The Space Telescope Science Institute is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., for NASA, under contract with the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD.
The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency.

GIF and JPEG images, captions and press release texts are available via World Wide Web at Embryonic Stars Emerge from Interstellar 'Eggs' (HubbleSite - NewsCenter).

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Updated: November 29 '96, April 26 '10, January 8 '15

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