Catalogued as Messier 16 or M16, and also known as the Star Queen Nebula, it was discovered by Jean-Philippe de Cheseaux in 1745. It is a young open cluster of stars in a cloud of molecular hydrogen gas and dust stretching approximately 70 light years by 55 light years, including the famous “Pillars of Creation,” in the constellation Serpens.
This region of active current star formation is about 6,500 light-years from our Solar System and has approximately 460 stars of roughly 80 solar masses, with a luminosity up to 1 million times that of the Sun. The brightest star in the nebula (HD 168076) has an apparent magnitude of +8.24.
The tower of gas (the Spire) that can be seen coming off the nebula is approximately 9.5 light-years or about 90 trillion kilometers long. Appearing like a winged fairy-tale creature poised on a pedestal (pinkish-blue formation at the top of the column), this object is actually a billowing tower of cold gas and dust rising from a stellar nursery called the Eagle Nebula. Robert Burnham, Jr. descriptively named this luminous area “Star Queen Nebula.”
This image taken by Jeff Hester and Paul Scowen using the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995 shows the Pillars of Creation, which resemble stalagmites protruding from the floor of a cavern. The tallest pillar is around 4 light-years high. The dark areas believed to be protostars.
The Very Large Telescope in Chile imaged the famous Pillars of Creation region and its surroundings in near-infrared enabling astronomers to penetrate the ‘evaporating gaseous globules’ (EGGs) to peel back the layers of dust and detect the low-mass young stars cocooned within the EGG shells. The tips of the pillars contain stars and nebulosity not seen in the Hubble image. To the right of the central photo enlargement of several stars show the brightest binary stars HD 168076.
In this false colour image from Herschel, the bluer material is relatively warm compared to its surroundings, although still only at temperatures in the region of -200 degrees Celsius. The brightest blue and white regions show the warmest and densest material, where newly formed stars are heating their surrounding cocoons of dust, and proving that stars really are forming in the EGGs at the tips of the pillars. The redder regions trace much colder material, just a few tens of degrees above absolute zero (-273 Celsius). The bright red and orange regions show the locations of clumps of cold dust that are in the process of collapsing to form stars. The dominant colours in the image were produced by gas energized by the star cluster’s powerful ultraviolet light.
The young cluster’s intense starlight may be inducing star formation in some regions of the tower. The blue colour at the top is from glowing oxygen. The red colour in the lower region is from glowing hydrogen. The Eagle Nebula image was taken in November 2004 with the Advanced Camera for Surveys aboard the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.
Sources: Herschel Space Observatory, Hubble, HyperPhysics, Sky & Telescope, Space, Wikipedia.