17 Jan 2012

Iconic new images of the ‘Pillars of Creation’ captured by Herschel space observatory

Herschel and XMM-Newton image

Herschel and XMM-Newton image

The European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory has captured stunning images of one of the ‘Pillars of Creation’ providing new views of star birth in this iconic region, 17 years after the Hubble telescope originally observed the region.

The ‘Pillars of Creation’ form a small part of the Eagle Nebula star formation that lies 6500 light years away. Made of gas and dust (small particles of carbon and silicate material) they are several light years in length and lie at the centre of an incredibly complex region 30 – 40 light years across, which is undergoing a burst of star formation.

These breath- taking images highlight the processes occurring within the pillars, and at the locations of stars forming throughout the surrounding area. The images are particularly exciting as star formation usually occurs in regions that are completely obscured from the view of optical telescopes that detect visible light. However the Hershel Space Observatory sees far –infrared light which has wavelengths thousands of times longer than visible light, therefore rather than seeing the pillars as dark silhouettes, Hershel sees the clouds of dust glowing in their own light.

Professor Glenn White, of The Open University and The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, and a member of the international project team (involving scientists from CEA Saclay in France, and the European Space Agency at Vilspa in Spain) who is working on the data said: ‘These observations reveal how complicated the formation of stars is. The local environment in the Eagle Nebula is probably very similar to that when our own solar system formed almost 5 billion years ago – so seeing these images is a bit like using a time machine to look back at how our own solar system might have been born. In the Eagle Nebula we are observing the formation of individual stars, as well as seeing the way that radiation from an earlier generation of stars formed several million years previously can induce new star formation in nearby material in the Galaxy’.

The Herschel observations are complemented by X-ray observations by the XMM-Newton spacecraft, along with optical and near-infrared observations from the Hubble Telescope and the ESO Very Large Telescope in Chile.

Notes to Editors
These images are to be broadcast on BBC Stargazing LIVE on 17th January 2012.

Hershel is an ESA space observatory with science instruments provided by European – led Principle Investigator consortia, including the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, and the University of Cardiff, and with important participation from NASA. It was launched in May 2009.

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