With the MUSE instrument on European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT), the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula, Messier 16 are observable in 3-D. The original NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of the famous Pillars of Creation was taken two decades ago and immediately became arguably one of its most famous pictures.

According to a press release, the new 3-D observations demonstrate how the different dusty pillars of this iconic object are distributed in space and reveal many new details - including a previously unseen jet from a young star. Intense radiation and stellar winds from the cluster's brilliant stars have sculpted the dusty Pillars of Creation over time and should fully evaporate them in about three million years.

(Photo : ESO/M. Kornmesser)
According to ESO: "This visualisation of the three-dimensional structure of the Pillars of Creation within the star formation region Messier 16 (also called the Eagle Nebula) is based on new observations of the object using the MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. The pillars actually consist of several distinct pieces on either side of the star cluster NGC 6611. In this illustration, the relative distance between the pillars along the line of sight is not to scale."

This research was presented in a paper entitled "The Pillars of Creation revisited with MUSE: gas kinematics and high-mass stellar feedback traced by optical spectroscopy" by A. F. McLeod et al., and appears in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The Pillars of Creation are a classic example of the column-like shapes that develop in the giant clouds of gas and dust that are the birthplaces of new stars. The columns arise when immense, freshly formed blue-white O and B stars give off intense ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds that blow away less dense materials from their vicinity.

(Photo : ESO)
According to the press release: "This view shows how the MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope has created a three-dimensional view of the iconic Pillars of Creation in the star-forming region Messier 16. Each pixel in the data corresponds to a spectrum that reveals a host of information about the motions and physical conditions of the gas at that point. The slices of the data corresponding to some of the different chemical elements present are highlighted."

Denser pockets of gas and dust, however, can resist this erosion for longer. Behind such thicker dust pockets, material is shielded from the harsh, withering glare of O and B stars. This shielding creates dark "tails" or "elephant trunks", which we see as the dusky body of a pillar, that point away from the brilliant stars.

(Photo : ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope)
This chart shows the constellation of Serpens Cauda, the tail part of the constellation of Serpens. The position of Messier 16 is marked with a red circle and is the site of the famous Pillars of Creation. According to ESO, "although the star cluster associated with this object is easily seen in a small telescope, the details of the gas clouds are faint and challenging visually even with a larger telescope."

MUSE has shown that the tip of the left pillar is facing us, atop a pillar that is actually situated behind NGC 6611, unlike the other pillars. This tip is bearing the brunt of the radiation from NGC 6611's stars, and as a result looks brighter to our eyes than the bottom left, middle and right pillars, whose tips are all pointed away from our view.

Astronomers hope to better understand how young O and B stars like those in NGC 6611 influence the formation of subsequent stars. Numerous studies have identified protostars forming in these clouds - they are indeed Pillars of Creation. The new study also reports fresh evidence for two gestating stars in the left and middle pillars as well as a jet from a young star that had escaped attention up to now.

(Photo : http://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1518e/)
"This image is a color composite of the Eagle Nebula (M 16) made from exposures from the Digitized Sky Survey 2 (DSS2)," ESO stated. "The field of view is approximately 3.8 x 3.3 degrees."

For more stars to form in environments like the Pillars of Creation, it is a race against time as intense radiation from the powerful stars that are already shining continues to grind away at the pillars. They shed about 70 times the mass of the sun every million years or so. Based on the their present mass of about 200 times that of the sun, the Pillars of Creation have an expected lifetime of perhaps three million more years. Creation will turn into destruction in a cosmic blink of an eye.