The Making of the Pillars of Creation

It’s one of the most iconic images of the modern Space Age. In 1995, the Hubble Space Telescope team released an image of towering columns of gas and dust that contained newborn stars in the midst of formation. Dubbed the “Pillars of Creation,” these light-years long tendrils captivated the public imagination and now grace everything from screensavers to coffee mugs. This is a cosmic portrait of our possible past, and the essence of the universe giving birth to new stars and worlds in action.

Now, a study out on Thursday from the 2014 National Astronomy Meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society has shed new light on just how these pillars may have formed. The announcement comes out of Cardiff University, where astronomer Scott Balfour has run computer simulations that closely model the evolution and the outcome of what’s been observed by the Hubble Space Telescope.

The ‘Pillars’ lie in the Eagle Nebula, also known as Messier 16 (M16), which is situated in the constellation Serpens about 7,000 light years distant.  The pillars themselves have formed as intense radiation from young massive stars just beginning to shine erode and sculpt the immense columns.

The location of Messier 16 and the Pillars of Creation in the night sky. Credit: Stellarium.
The location of Messier 16 and the Pillars of Creation in the night sky. Credit: Stellarium.

But as is often the case in early stellar evolution, having massive siblings nearby is bad news for fledgling stars. Such large stars are of the O-type variety, and are more than 16 times as massive as our own Sun. Alnitak in Orion’s belt and the stars of the Trapezium in the Orion Nebula are examples of large O-type stars that can be found in the night sky. But such stars have a “burn fast and die young” credo when it comes to their take on nuclear fusion, spending mere millions of years along the Main Sequence of the Hertzsprung Russell diagram before promptly going supernova. Contrast this with a main sequence life expectancy of 10 billion years for our Sun, and life spans measured in the trillions of years — longer than the current age of the universe — for tiny red dwarf stars. The larger a star you are, the shorter your life span.

A capture from the simulation, showing a cross-section 25 by 25 light years square and 0.2 light years thick. The simulation shows how the O-type star “sculpts” its surroundings over the span of 1.6 million years, carving out, in some cases, the famous “pillars”. Credit: S. Balfour/ University of Cardiff.

Such O-Type stars also have surface temperatures at a scorching 30,000 degrees Celsius, contrasted with a relatively ‘chilly’ 5,500 degree Celsius surface temperature for our Sun.

This also results in a prodigious output in energetic ultraviolet radiation by O-type stars, along with a blustery solar wind. This carves out massive bubbles in a typical stellar nursery, and while it may be bad news for planets and stars attempting to form nearby any such tempestuous stars, this wind can also compress and energize colder regions of gas and dust farther out and serve to trigger another round of star formation. Ironically, such stars are thus “cradle robbers” when it comes to potential stellar and planetary formation AND promoters of new star birth.

In his study, Scott looked at the way gas and dust would form in a typical proto-solar nebula over the span of 1.6 million years. Running the simulation over the span of several weeks, the model started with a massive O-type star that formed out of an initial collapsing smooth cloud of gas.

That’s not bad, a simulation where 1 week equals a few hundred million years…

As expected, said massive star did indeed carve out a spherical bubble given the initial conditions. But Scott also found something special: the interactions of the stellar winds with the local gas was much more complex than anticipated, with three basic results: either the bubble continued to expand unimpeded, the front would expand, contract slightly and then become a stationary barrier, or finally, it would expand and then eventually collapse back in on itself back to the source.

The study was notable because it’s only in the second circumstance that the situation is favorable for a new round of star formation that is seen in the Pillars of Creation.

“If I’m right, it means that O-type and other massive stars play a much more complex role than we previously thought in nursing a new generation of stellar siblings to life,” Scott said in a recent press release. “The model neatly produces exactly the same kind of structures seen by astronomers in the classic 1995 image, vindicating the idea that giant O-type stars have a major effect in sculpting their surroundings.”

Such visions as the Pillars of Creation give us a snapshot of a specific stage in stellar evolution and give us a chance to study what we may have looked like, just over four billion years ago. And as simulations such as those announced in this week’s study become more refined, we’ll be able to use them as a predictor and offer a prognosis for a prospective stellar nebula and gain further insight into the secret early lives of stars.

Bright Stars Don’t Like to Be Alone

Caption: New research using data from European Southern Observatory telescopes, including the Very Large Telescope, has revealed that the hottest and brightest stars, known as O stars, are often found in close pairs. Credit: ESA, NASA, H. Sana (Amsterdam University), and S.E. de Mink (STScI)

Like humans, stars seem to prefer the company of companions. A new study using the Very Large Telescope reveals that most very bright, high-mass O-type stars do not live alone. Surprisingly, almost three-quarters of these stars have a close companion star, far more than previously thought. But sometimes – also like humans – the relationship between companion stars can turn a little ugly, with one star becoming dominant and even disruptive by stealing matter from the other, or doing a hostile takeover.

An international team of astronomers have found that some stars will virtually suck the life out of another, and about one-third of the time, a pair of stars will ultimately merge to form a single star.

The stars included in this study are some of the biggest, brightest stars which have very high temperatures. They live fast and die young, and in their lives play a key role in the evolution of galaxies. by, which drive the evolution of galaxies. They are also linked to extreme phenomena such as gamma-ray bursts.

“These stars are absolute behemoths,” said Hugues Sana, from the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, lead author of the study. “They have 15 or more times the mass of our Sun and can be up to a million times brighter. These stars are so hot that they shine with a brilliant blue-white light and have surface temperatures over 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit (30,000 degrees C).”

The astronomers studied a sample of 71 O-type single stars and stars in pairs (binaries) in six nearby young star clusters in the Milky Way.
By analyzing the light coming from these targets in greater detail than before, the team discovered that 75 percent of all O-type stars exist inside binary systems, a higher proportion than previously thought, and the first precise determination of this number. More importantly, though, they found that the proportion of these pairs that are close enough to interact (through stellar mergers or transfer of mass by so-called vampire stars) is far higher than anyone had thought, which has profound implications for our understanding of galaxy evolution.

O-type stars make up just a fraction of a percent of the stars in the universe, but the violent phenomena associated with them mean they have a disproportionate effect on their surroundings. The winds and shocks coming from these stars can both trigger and stop star formation, their radiation powers the glow of bright nebulae, their supernovae enrich galaxies with the heavy elements crucial for life, and they are associated with gamma-ray bursts, which are among the most energetic phenomena in the universe. O-type stars are therefore implicated in many of the mechanisms that drive the evolution of galaxies.

“The life of a star is greatly affected if it exists alongside another star,” said Selma de Mink of the Space Telescope Science Institute, in Baltimore, Md., a co-author of the study. “If two stars orbit very close to each other they may eventually merge. But even if they don’t, one star will often pull matter off the surface of its neighbor.”

Mergers between stars, which the team estimates will be the ultimate fate of around 20 to 30 percent of O-type stars, are violent events. But even the comparatively gentle scenario of vampire stars, which accounts for a further 40 to 50 percent of cases, has profound effects on how these stars evolve.

Until now, astronomers mostly considered that closely orbiting massive binary stars were the exception, something that was only needed to explain exotic phenomena such as X-ray binaries, double pulsars, and black hole binaries. The new study shows that to properly interpret the universe, this simplification cannot be made: these heavyweight double stars are not just common, their lives are fundamentally different from those of single stars.

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For instance, in the case of vampire stars — where the smaller, lower-mass star is rejuvenated as it sucks the fresh hydrogen from its companion — its mass will increase substantially and it will outlive its companion, surviving much longer than a single star of the same mass. The victim star, meanwhile, is stripped of its envelope before it has a chance to become a luminous red supergiant. Instead, its hot, blue core is exposed. As a result, the stellar population of a distant galaxy may appear to be much younger than it really is: both the rejuvenated vampire stars, and the diminished victim stars become hotter, and bluer in color, mimicking the appearance of younger stars. Knowing the true proportion of interacting high-mass binary stars is therefore crucial to correctly characterize these faraway galaxies.

“The only information astronomers have on distant galaxies is from the light that reaches our telescopes. Without making assumptions about what is responsible for this light we cannot draw conclusions about the galaxy, such as how massive or how young it is. This study shows that the frequent assumption that most stars are single can lead to the wrong conclusions,” said Sana.

Understanding how big these effects are, and how much this new perspective will change our view of galactic evolution, will need further work. Modeling binary stars is complicated, so it will take time before all these considerations are included in models of galaxy formation.

The paper was published in the July 27 issue of the journal Science.

Paper by: Sana, de Mink, et al. (PDF document)

Sources: ESO, HubbleSite