One of the most beautiful and inspiring regions in the galaxy climbs across the south on summer nights. Binoculars reveal some of its stars, and a telescope shows its hazy outline. But its true glory comes through best in long-exposure images.
The Eagle Nebula is a vast complex of stars, newly forming stars, and the raw material for stars — clouds of gas and dust. The nebula was discovered 250 years ago this week by comet hunter Charles Messier. But it was made famous a couple of decades ago by an image from Hubble Space Telescope, known as the Pillars of Creation.
The pillars of cold gas and dust span several light-years. They’re sculpted by winds and radiation from hot, young, massive stars. The stars erode the outer regions of the pillars, but they also create shock waves that squeeze them. The shock waves compress dense knots of gas and dust, helping them collapse to form new stars.
The nebula has given birth to hundreds of stars in a wide variety of sizes and masses.
There’s evidence that one of its heavy stars has exploded as a supernova. If so, then a shockwave from the star is racing outward. In fact, it’s probably already plowed through the pillars, blasting away most of the material for making more stars. Because the system is about 6500 light-years away, though, we won’t see that happen for another millennium or so. That means we can enjoy the inspiring beauty of the Eagle Nebula for many more centuries.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014
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