The pillars of creation are a part of the emission nebula, or H II region, M16 (also called the Eagle Nebula).
The iconic Hubble Space Telescope image shown here was taken on April Fool’s Day, 1995, using the WFPC2 camera (you can tell it’s that camera from the W-shaped bite taken out of it). It was snapped as part of a research program by Arizona State University’s Jeff Hester and Paul Scowen, and released to the general public on 2 November (i.e. after the proprietary six-month period was over). Embryonic Stars Emerge from Interstellar “Eggs” – that’s the title of the HubbleSite Press Release; “eggs” is a play on EGGs, Evaporating Gas Globules, “dense, compact pockets of interstellar gas“. Interestingly, the name “pillars of creation” is found only in the image title, and nowhere in the Press Release text!
The pillars of creation – and M16 – are about 7,000 light-years away, and each are several light-years long (of course, there’s no “up” in space, so if you turn the image upside down, you see downward hanging linear features … but ‘stalactites of creation’ just isn’t at all catchy).
Hubble has imaged many similar star-forming regions, complete with their own pillars; for example NGC 602 (in the Small Magellanic Cloud; zooming in on this image is fun – can you spot some of the ‘stalactites of creation’?), NGC 6357 (in our own Milky Way, just a tad further away than M16), and a different pillar (“Stellar Spire”) in the Eagle Nebula. Who knows? Maybe, one day, the Horsehead Nebula may become a pillar of creation too!
Universe Today has many articles on these pillars, Shadows Helped Form the “Pillars of Creation”, The Eagle … Has Arrived, Chandra Gives Another Look at the Pillars of Creation, Spitzer’s Version of the Pillars of Creation, and Eagle Nebula’s Pillars Were Wiped Out Thousands of Years Ago.