How the 'Pillars of Creation' were created

Jun 26, 2014 by Dr Robert Massey
How the 'Pillars of Creation' image was created
The famous Hubble Space Telescope image of the 'Pillars of Creation', from 1995. Credit: NASA / ESA / STScI / J. Hester and P. Scowen

(Phys.org) —The 'Pillars of Creation', an image made with the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995, is one of the most famous astronomical views. It shows how 'elephant trunks' of cooler interstellar gas are eroded by the intense radiation and winds from nearby massive stars.

Now Scott Balfour, an astronomer at Cardiff University, has run a new simulation where similar structures appear with a remarkably close appearance to their real life counterparts. He also suggests that the that make these structures are of little help in forming new siblings. On Thursday 26 June Scott will present his results in a talk at the National Astronomy Meeting in Portsmouth.

The massive O-type stars, more than 16 times as 'heavy' as our Sun, have short but dramatic lives. During their most stable phase on the so-called main sequence, they have surface temperatures of more than 30,000 degrees Celsius (on the Sun the surface is about 5500 degrees), are strong sources of ultraviolet light and emit copious material in a powerful wind.

All of this shapes their surroundings. The O-type stars heat any interstellar gas in their vicinity, creating bubbles which act like snow ploughs sweeping up surrounding colder material. In these regions, where gas is compressed, large numbers of new stars are seen forming so many scientists argue that the O stars drive star formation.

An image from the simulation, showing a slice of space 25 x 25 light years across and 0.2 light years thick (for reference 1 light year is about 9.6 million million km or a bit more than 63000 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun). The model depicts how a hot star in the centre of the cloud changes its surroundings over 1.6 million years, creating the ‘elephant trunks’ seen in Hubble imagery. Insets show close-ups of a pillar and bright rimmed cloud. Credit: S. Balfour / University of Cardiff

In his new work, Scott has tried to test this idea by simulating the way the gas behaves over a period of 1.6 million years, a simulation that took several weeks of computing time to calculate. His model explored what would happen when a massive star forms in a smooth cloud of gas that is already collapsing under its own weight.

Light from the O-type star creates a bubble in the cloud as expected, but its future can follow one of three paths. It may expand forever; expand, contract a little and then become almost stationary or expand and then contract all the way back to the centre of the cloud. Scott found that only the second case leads to prolific star formation and even then only under very specific conditions.

He comments: "If I'm right, it means that O-type and other massive stars play a much more complex role than we previously thought in nursing a new generation of stellar siblings to life."

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
A movie of the simulation, showing how the cloud collapses and forms 'elephant trunks' and bright rims over 1.6 million years. Credit: S. Balfour / University of Cardiff

His model also neatly replicates the bright rims and pillars seen in the Hubble image, which seem to form naturally along the outer edge of the bubble as it breaks up.

Scott adds: "The model neatly produces exactly the same kind of structures seen by astronomers in the classic 1995 image, vindicating the idea that giant O-type stars have a major effect in sculpting their surroundings."

Explore further: Image: A sequence of star-forming regions in the molecular cloud W48

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

The 'Serpent' star-forming cloud hatches new stars

May 30, 2014

(Phys.org) —Stars that are just beginning to coalesce out of cool swaths of dust and gas are showcased in this image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS). Infrared ...

Violent birth announcement from an infant star

Jun 06, 2014

(Phys.org) —This Hubble image shows IRAS 14568-6304, a young star that is cloaked in a haze of golden gas and dust. It appears to be embedded within an intriguing swoosh of dark sky, which curves through ...

Herschel sees budding stars and a giant, strange ring

Jun 13, 2014

The Herschel Space Observatory has uncovered a weird ring of dusty material while obtaining one of the sharpest scans to date of a huge cloud of gas and dust, called NGC 7538. The observations have revealed ...

Recommended for you

New window on the early Universe

Oct 22, 2014

Scientists at the Universities of Bonn and Cardiff see good times approaching for astrophysicists after hatching a new observational strategy to distill detailed information from galaxies at the edge of ...

Chandra's archives come to life

Oct 22, 2014

Every year, NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory looks at hundreds of objects throughout space to help expand our understanding of the Universe. Ultimately, these data are stored in the Chandra Data Archive, ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

yyz
not rated yet Jun 27, 2014
There was a story going around the internets a few years ago that the Pillars of Creation were destroyed by a supernova blast wave nearly 6000 years ago (and will not be observed here on Earth for another 1000 years due to the light travel time from the Eagle Nebula, 7000 light years away). The detection of hot dust in the nebula by the Spitzer Space Telescope was supposed to be due to heating from a supernova shock wave:

http://www.newsci...DU7GTFxy

Other researchers have pointed out, though, that the hot dust in the Eagle Nebula could also be the result of heating by high speed winds from the massive O and B stars in the nebula, as described in this article. In this case the Pillars remain intact but would slowly be eroded over time.