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Seeing the glorious Eagle Nebula, with Pillars of Creation

M16 is the Eagle Nebula, one of the grandest star-forming regions of the nearby Milky Way. It contains an open star cluster designated NGC 6611

SHARE Seeing the glorious Eagle Nebula, with Pillars of Creation
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A color photo of the Eagle Nebula taken with the 32-inch telescope in the University of Utah’s Willard L. Eccles Observatory on Frisco Peak, Beaver County.

Paul Ricketts

Editor’s note: A version of this has been previously published on the author’s website.

A few weeks ago I had a cosmic surprise, during the Utah Astronomy Club’s first virtual meeting. Working by remote control, Paul Ricketts, our friendly host, was operating the University of Utah’s 32-inch-diameter telescope atop Frisco Peak, Beaver County. The sky was somewhat cloudy and hazy above the Willard L. Eccles Observatory, the all-sky cam showed, but generally semiclear enough to excite the group.

Participants checked in via Zoom and a live feed on the club’s Facebook site. Ricketts asked for viewing suggestions. “Globular clusters,” I offered, since these spangles are most apparent in summertime. Another said, “M16,” and I eagerly agreed, remembering it as a particularly nice globular. But when the telescope’s camera took the view and it was beamed to Salt Lake City, instead of the jewels of a celestial broach, the screen filled with an astonishing image: pillars, gaseous swirls, glaring stars, wrinkly streaks, areas like dense smoke, dark patches, and the blackness of space cutting into the formation like the bow of a ship through waves.

My memory of the Messier designations was off. I thought M16 was a globular cluster, but M13 was what I was picturing in my mind. Actually, M16 is the Eagle Nebula, one of the grandest star-forming regions of the nearby Milky Way. It contains an open star cluster designated NGC 6611.

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The live telescopic view of M16 as it appeared when the Utah Astronomy Club virtually toured the universe, Aug. 19, 2020. Photo is made with instruments in the University of Utah Department of Physics and Astronomy’s Willard L. Eccles Observatory on Frisco Peak, Beaver County, Utah.

Paul Ricketts

About 6,500 or 7,000 light-years from Earth (estimates vary on NASA sites), this stellar nursery was discovered in 1745 by the Swiss astronomer Jean-Philippe Loys de Chéseaux, according to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center at www.nasa.gov. With a magnitude of 6 from our viewpoint — 6 is that of the faintest stars visible to the unaided eye — “the Eagle Nebula can be spotted through a small telescope and is best viewed during July,” according to information from the Goddard Space Flight Center. However, it remains reasonably far above the horizon for viewing through mid-November.

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A home computer screen shows the live view above the Willard L. Eccles observatory, taken by an all-sky camera, Aug. 19, 2020. Besides the clouds and haze, the Milky Way and bright stars appear.

Screenshot by Joe Bauman

The NASA Science Mission Directorate explains at science.nasa.gov that stars are formed within clouds of dust and gas scattered throughout galaxies. “Turbulence deep within these clouds gives rise to knots with sufficient mass that the gas and dust can begin to collapse under its own gravitational attraction. As the cloud collapses, the material at the center begins to heat up. Known as a protostar, it is this hot core at the heart of the collapsing cloud that will one day become a star.”

The Eagle is such a cloud of dust and gas. Measuring 70 light years by 55 light years, it hosts an estimated 1,700 X-ray sources, NASA says (online at www.nasa.gov); many of these stars or protostars were detected by their X-ray emissions where they are hidden within dark clouds. Two-thirds of the stars are part of the open star cluster NGC 6611, which lights up much of the nebula.

Hubble Space Telescope scientists point out at www.spacetelescope.org that NGC 6611 formed about 5.5 million years ago. “It is a very young cluster, containing many hot, blue stars, whose fierce ultraviolet glow make (makes) the surrounding Eagle Nebula glow brightly.” Within the nebula, Hubble experts add, “dark patches can also be spotted, punctuating the stellar landscape. These areas of apparent nothingness are actually very dense regions of gas and dust, which obstruct light from passing through. Many of these may be hiding the sites of the early stages of star formation, before the fledgling stars clear away their surroundings and burst into view.”

The nebula’s most remarkable features are soaring columns of gas that have been dubbed “the pillars of creation.”

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 Hubble Space Telescope image of the famous “Pillars of Creation” within the Eagle Nebula.

NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

The Hubble Heritage Team (on www.nasa.gov) describes them:

“The pillars are bathed in the scorching ultraviolet light from a cluster of young stars located just outside the frame. The winds from these stars are slowly eroding the towers of gas and dust.

“Stretching roughly 4 to 5 light-years, the Pillars of Creation are a fascinating but relatively small feature of the entire Eagle Nebula.”

The amazing pillars, star cluster, nebular gases and other features are easily discernible in the overall views beamed from Frisco Peak to Salt Lake City. They’re even more beautiful in a color photo taken earlier by Ricketts with the 32-inch telescope.

Participants kept the club’s meeting going for two hours, talking and soaking in views of the Ring and Veil nebulas, the fireworks galaxy (NGC 6946) a distant quasar and the globular cluster M13.

Joe Bauman, a former Deseret News science reporter, writes an astronomy blog at the-nightly-news.com and is an avid amateur astronomer. His email is joe@the-nightly-news.com.