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A New View of an Icon (Forwarded)
17 January 2012
A New View of an Icon
The Eagle Nebula as never seen before. In 1995, the Hubble Space Telescope's
'Pillars of Creation' image of the Eagle Nebula became one of the most
iconic images of the 20th century. Now, two of ESA's orbiting observatories
have shed new light on this enigmatic star-forming region.
The Eagle Nebula is 6500 light-years away in the constellation of Serpens.
It contains a young hot star cluster, NGC6611, visible with modest
back-garden telescopes, that is sculpting and illuminating the surrounding
gas and dust, resulting in a huge hollowed-out cavity and pillars, each
several light-years long.
The Hubble image hinted at new stars being born within the pillars, deeply
inside small clumps known as 'evaporating gaseous globules' or EGGs. Owing
to obscuring dust, Hubble's visible light picture was unable to see inside
and prove that young stars were indeed forming.
The ESA Herschel Space Observatory's new image shows the pillars and the
wide field of gas and dust around them. Captured in far-infrared
wavelengths, the image allows astronomers to see inside the pillars and
structures in the region.
In parallel, a new multi-energy X-ray image from ESA's XMM-Newton telescope
shows those hot young stars responsible for carving the pillars.
Combining the new space data with near-infrared images from the European
Southern Observatory's (ESO's) Very Large Telescope at Paranal, Chile, and
visible-light data from its Max Planck Gesellschaft 2.2m diameter telescope
at La Silla, Chile, we see this iconic region of the sky in a uniquely
beautiful and revealing way.
In visible wavelengths, the nebula shines mainly due to reflected starlight
and hot gas filling the giant cavity, covering the surfaces of the pillars
and other dusty structures.
At near-infrared wavelengths, the dust becomes almost transparent and the
pillars practically vanish.
In far-infrared, Herschel detects this cold dust and the pillars reappear,
this time glowing in their own light.
Intricate tendrils of dust and gas are seen to shine, giving astronomers
clues about how it interacts with strong ultraviolet light from the hot
stars seen by XMM-Newton.
In 2001, Very Large Telescope near-infrared images had shown only a small
minority of the EGGs were likely to contain stars being born.
However, Herschel's image makes it possible to search for young stars over a
much wider region and thus come to a much fuller understanding of the
creative and destructive forces inside the Eagle Nebula.
Earlier mid-infrared images from ESA's Infrared Space Observatory and NASA's
Spitzer, and the new XMM-Newton data, have led astronomers to suspect that
one of the massive, hot stars in NGC6611 may have exploded in a supernova
6000 years ago, emitting a shockwave that destroyed the pillars.
However, because of the distance of the Eagle Nebula, we won't see this
happen for several hundred years yet.
Powerful ground-based telescopes continue to provide astonishing views of
our Universe, but images in far-infrared, mid-infrared and X-ray wavelengths
are impossible to obtain owing to the absorbing effects of Earth's
Space-based observatories such as ESA's Herschel and XMM-Newton help to peel
back that veil and see the full beauty of the Universe across the
With regions like the Eagle Nebula, combining all of these observations
helps astronomers to understand the complex yet amazing lifecycle of stars.
[NOTE: Images and weblinks supporting this release are available at
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