The 'Pillars of Creation' Hides a Special Magnetic Field Which Can Teach Us More About Star Formation

The 'Pillars of Creation' Hides a Special Magnetic Field Which Can Teach Us More About Star Formation

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

You’ve likely seen the famous Hubble telescope photo of the Pillars of Creation – the long trunks of a nebula which resemble the hand of some Lovecraftian deity. 

Beyond being cool (and very big, they’re a few lightyears in length), the gas columns also serve as stellar nurseries with young stars forming inside of them, which isn’t uncommon for any sizable nebula. But the Pillars do have something unique about them, as a team led by astronomers at the University of Central Lancashire in England have discovered and mapped out a never-before-seen magnetic field running along the length of the Pillars.

This led the team to come up with a new proposal regarding the iconic cosmic gas fingers: since these magnetic fields run counter to other fields in the region, the Pillars are likely given their shape and held together magnetically, and this has some big consequences for the stars forming inside.

If magnetic support truly does hold the Pillars of Creation together, then the stars are likely formed by clumps of gas collapsing together due to being slowed by the magnetic field. And the rest of the slowed gas would similarly condense into the odd shape seen in the photo.

The researchers made the discovery by analyzing the Pillars through the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii. Derek Ward-Thompson, the head of the School of Physical Sciences and Computing at the University of Central Lancashire, said the following in an official statement from the school:

Opening quote

“The technology employed to view the minutiae of the magnetic fields is truly remarkable, and the fact that we have been able to observe the incredibly weak magnetic field with this sensitive instrument will help us to solve the mystery of the formation of stars.”

Closing quote

The Pillars of Creation is technically the name of the famous Hubble photograph, as the Pillars themselves are just a protrusion within the Eagle Nebula about 7,000 lightyears away from Earth, in the Serpens constellation.

Hubble has examined lots of other strange nebulae over the decades, and they might be worth a look too in case any similar magnetic fields are hidden inside.

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