Messier 16 (M16) – The Eagle Nebula

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the Messier 16 open star cluster – aka. The Eagle Nebula (and a slew of other names). Enjoy!

In the 18th century, while searching the night sky for comets, French astronomer Charles Messier began noticing a series of “nebulous objects” in the night sky. Hoping to ensure that other astronomers did not make the same mistake, he began compiling a list of these objects,. Known to posterity as the Messier Catalog, this list has come to be one of the most important milestones in the research of Deep Sky objects.

One of these objects it he Eagle Nebula (aka. NGC 661. The Star Queen Nebula and The Spire), a young open cluster of stars located in the Serpens constellation. The names “Eagle” and “Star Queen” refer to visual impressions of the dark silhouette near the center of the nebula. The nebula contains several active star-forming gas and dust regions, which includes the now-famous “Pillars of Creation“.


Located some 7,000 light years away in the next inner spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy, the Eagle Nebula spans some 70 by 50 light years across. Born around 5.5 million years ago, this glittering swarm marks an area about 15 light years wide, and within the heart of this nebula is a cluster of stars and a region that has captured our imaginations like nothing else – the “Pillars of Creation”.

Here, star formation is going on. The dust clouds are illuminated by emission light, where high-energy radiation from its massive and hot young stars excited the particles of gas and makes them glow. Inside the pillars are Evaporating Gaseous Globules (EGGs), concentrations of gas that are emerging from the “womb” that about to become stars.

M16 Stars, Pillars, and the Eagle's EGGs
Wide-field IR view of the Eagle Nebula, showing its Stars, the Pillars, and the Eagle’s EGGs. Credit: ESO

These pockets of interstellar gas are dense enough to collapse under their own weight, forming young stars that continue to grow as they accumulate more and more mass from their surroundings. As their place of birth contracts gravitationally, the interior gas reaches its end and the intense radiation of bright young stars causes low density material to boil away.

These regions were first photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995. As Jeff Hester – a professor at Arizona State University and an investigator with the Hubble’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) – said of the discovery:

“For a long time astronomers have speculated about what processes control the sizes of stars – about why stars are the sizes that they are. Now in M16 we seem to be watching at least one such process at work right in front of our eyes.”

The Hubble has shown us what happens when all the gas boils away and only the EGGs are left. “It’s a bit like a wind storm in the desert,” said Hester. “As the wind blows away the lighter sand, heavier rocks buried in the sand are uncovered. But in M16, instead of rocks, the ultraviolet light is uncovering the denser egg-like globules of gas that surround stars that were forming inside the gigantic gas columns.”

The Eagle Nebula's pillars of creation taken in 1995 (right) and 2015. The new image was obtained with the Wide Field Camera 3, installed by astronauts in 2009. Credit: Left: NASA, ESA/Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team. Right: NASA, ESA/Hubble, STScI, J. Hester and P. Scowen (Arizona State University)
The Eagle Nebula’s pillars of creation taken in 1995 (right) and 2015. The new image was obtained with the Wide Field Camera 3, installed by astronauts in 2009. Credit: Left: NASA, ESA/HST/Hubble Heritage Team/STScI, J. Hester and P. Scowen (Arizona State University).

And some of these EGGs are nothing more than what would appear to be tiny bumps and teardrops in space – but at least we are looking back in time to see what stars look like when they were first born. “This is the first time that we have actually seen the process of forming stars being uncovered by photoevaporation,” Hester emphasized. “In some ways it seems more like archaeology than astronomy. The ultraviolet light from nearby stars does the digging for us, and we study what is unearthed.”

History of Observation:

The star cluster associated with M16 (NGC 6611) was first discovered by Philippe Loys de Chéseaux in 1745-6. However, it was Charles Messier who was the very first to see the nebulosity associated with it. As he recorded in his notes:

“In the same night of June 3 to 4, 1764, I have discovered a cluster of small stars, mixed with a faint light, near the tail of Serpens, at little distance from the parallel of the star Zeta of that constellation: this cluster may have 8 minutes of arc in extension: with a weak refractor, these stars appear in the form of a nebula; but when employing a good instrument one distinguishes these stars, and one remarks in addition a nebulosity which contains three of these stars. I have determined the position of the middle of this cluster; its right ascension was 271d 15′ 3″, and its declination 13d 51′ 44″ south.”

A new look at M16, the Eagle Nebula in this composite from the Herschel telescope in far-infrared and XMM-Newton in X-ray. Credits: far-infrared: ESA/Herschel/PACS/SPIRE/Hill, Motte, HOBYS Key Programme Consortium; X-ray: ESA/XMM-Newton/EPIC/XMM-Newton-SOC/Boulanger
Composite image of M16 from the Herschel telescope in far-infrared and XMM-Newton in X-ray. Credits: ESA/Herschel/PACS/SPIRE/Hill, Motte, HOBYS Key Programme Consortium/XMM-Newton/EPIC/XMM-Newton-SOC/Boulanger

Oddly enough, Sir William Herschel, who was famous for elaborating on Messier’s observations, didn’t seem to notice the nebula at all (according to his notes). And Admiral Smyth, who could always be counted on for flowery prose about stellar objects, just barely saw it as well:

“A scattered but fine large stellar cluster, on the nombril of Sobieski’s shield, in the Galaxy, discovered by Messier in 1764, and registered as a mass of small stars in the midst of a faint light. As the stars are disposed in numerous pairs among the evanescent points of more minute components, it forms a very pretty object in a telescope of tolerable capacity.”

But of course, the nebula isn’t an easy object to spot and its visibility on any given night depends greatly on sky conditions. As historical evidence suggest, only one of the two masters (Messier) caught it. So take a lesson from history and return to the sky many times. One day you’ll be rewarded!

Locating Messier 16:

One of the easiest ways to find M16 is to identify the constellation of Aquila and begin tracing the stars down the eagle’s back to Lambda. When you reach that point, continue to extend the line through to Alpha Scuti, then southwards towards Gamma Scuti. Aim your binoculars or image correct finderscope at Gamma and put it in the 7:00 position.

The location of M16 in the Serpens constellation. Credit:
The location of M16, relative to the “Teapot” asterism in the Sagittarius constellation. Credit:

For those using a finderscope, M16 will easily show up as a faint haze. Even those using binoculars won’t miss it. If Gamma is in the lower left hand corner of your vision – then M16 is in the upper right hand. For all optics, you won’t be able to miss the open star cluster and the faint nebulosity of IC 4703 can be seen from dark sky locations.

Another way to find M16 is by first locating the “Teapot” asterism in Sagittarius constellation (see above), and then by following the line from the star Kaus Australis (Epsilon Sagittarii) – the brightest star in Sagittarius – to just east of Kaus Media (Delta Sagittarii). Another way to find the nebula is by extending a line from Lambda Scuti in Scutum constellation to Alpha Scuti, and then to the south to Gamma Scuti.

Those using large aperture telescopes will be able to see the nebula well, but sky conditions are everything when it comes to this one. The star cluster which is truly M16 will always be easy, but the nebula is a challenge.

And as always, here are the quick facts on M16 to help you get started:

Object Name: Messier 16
Alternative Designations: M16, NGC 6611, Eagle Nebula (IC 4703)
Object Type: Open Star Cluster and Emission Nebula
Constellation: Serpens (Cauda)
Right Ascension: 18 : 18.8 (h:m)
Declination: -13 : 47 (deg:m)
Distance: 7.0 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 6.4 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 7.0 (arc min)

And be sure to enjoy this video of the Eagle Nebula and the amazing photographs of the “Pillar of Creation”:

We have written many interesting articles about Messier Objects here at Universe Today. Here’s Tammy Plotner’s Introduction to the Messier Objects, , M1 – The Crab Nebula, M8 – The Lagoon Nebula, and David Dickison’s articles on the 2013 and 2014 Messier Marathons.

Be to sure to check out our complete Messier Catalog. And for more information, check out the SEDS Messier Database.

What Was Here Before the Solar System?

The Solar System is 4.5 billion years old, but the Universe is much older. What was here before our Solar System formed?

The Solar System is old. Like, dial-up-fax-machine-old. 4.6 billion years to be specific. The Solar System has nothing on the Universe. It’s been around for 13.8 billion years, give or take a few hundred million. That means the Universe is three times older than the Solar System.

Astronomers think the Milky Way, is about 13.2 billion years old; almost as old as the Universe itself. It formed when smaller dwarf galaxies merged together to create the grand spiral we know today. It turns out the Milky Way has about 8.6 billion years of unaccounted time. Billions and billions of years to get up to all kinds of mischief before the Solar System showed up to keep an eye on things.

Our Galaxy takes 220 million years to rotate, so it’s done this about 60 times in total. As it turns, it swirls and mixes material together like a giant space blender. Clouds of gas and dust come together into vast star forming regions, massive stars have gone supernova, and then the clusters themselves have been torn up again, churning the stars into the Milky Way. This happens in the galaxy’s spiral arms, where the areas of higher density lead to regions of star formation.

So let’s go back, more than 4.6 billion years, before there was an Earth, a Sun, or even a Solar System. Our entire region was gas and dust, probably within one of the spiral arms. Want to know what it looked like? Some of your favorite pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope should help.

Here’s the Orion, Eagle, and the Tarantula Nebulae. These are star forming regions. They’re clouds of hydrogen left over from Big Bang, with dust expended by aging stars, and seeded with heavier elements formed by supernovae.

Astrophoto: The Orion Nebula by Vasco Soeiro
The Orion Nebula. Image Credit: Vasco Soeiro

After a few million years, regions of higher density began forming into stars, both large and small. Let’s take a look at a star-forming nebula again. See the dark knots? Those are newly forming stars surrounded by gas and dust in the stellar nursery.

You’re seeing many many stars, some are enormous monsters, others are more like our Sun, and some smaller red dwarfs. Most will eventually have planets surrounding them – and maybe, eventually life? If this was the environment, where are all those other stars?

Why do I feel so alone? Where are all our brothers and sisters? Where’s all the other stuff that’s in that picture? Where’s all my stuff?

TRAPPIST First Light Image of the Tarantula Nebula.  Credit:  ESO
TRAPPIST First Light Image of the Tarantula Nebula. Credit: ESO

Apparently nature hates a messy room and a cozy stellar nest. The nebula that made the Sun was either absorbed into the stars, or blown away by the powerful stellar winds from the largest stars. Eventually they cleared out the nebula, like a fans blowing out a smoky room.

At the earliest point, our solar nebula looked like the Eagle Nebula, after millions of years, it was more like the Pleiades Star Cluster, with bright stars surrounded by hazy nebulosity. It was the gravitational forces of the Milky Way which tore the members of our solar nursery into a structure like the Hyades Cluster. Finally, gravitational interactions tore our cluster apart, so our sibling stars were lost forever in the churning arms of the Milky Way.

We’ll never know exactly what was here before the Solar System; that evidence has long been blown away into space. But we can see other places in the Milky Way that give us a rough idea of what it might have looked like at various stages in its evolution.

What should we call our original star forming nebula? Give our own nebula a name in the comments below.

Hubble Makes ‘Pillars Of Creation’ Look Better Than Ever

When you look at that image on the right, make sure to thank the STS-125 crew. And all the people who defended the idea of sending one last repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope before the space shuttle was decommissioned.

That’s because the famous “Pillars of Creation” image taken in 1995 by Hubble just got a huge upgrade. Using a camera the astronauts installed in 2009, astronomers recently revisited the iconic image and got far more detail this time around. And please, do yourself a favor to click through and see the ethereal infrared image Hubble got at the same time.

Embedded in these Eagle Nebula towers, which are sometimes called elephant trunks, are stars under creation. And in a short span of 20 years, you can see how the stars are slowly blowing the pillars apart. This is leading some press officials to call the structures “pillars of destruction.” And astronomers can chart how everything is changing over time.

“I’m impressed by how transitory these structures are. They are actively being ablated away before our very eyes,” stated Paul Scowen of Arizona State University in Tempe, one of the astronomers who led the 1995 observations.

The Eagle Nebula's pillars of creation captured in infrared light with the Hubble Space Telescope, in 2015. Credit: NASA, ESA/Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team
The Eagle Nebula’s pillars of creation captured in infrared light with the Hubble Space Telescope, in 2015. Credit: NASA, ESA/Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team

“These pillars represent a very dynamic, active process,” Scowen added. “The gas is not being passively heated up and gently wafting away into space. The gaseous pillars are actually getting ionized (a process by which electrons are stripped off of atoms) and heated up by radiation from the massive stars. And then they are being eroded by the stars’ strong winds (barrage of charged particles), which are sandblasting away the tops of these pillars.”

One large find from the two images showed a “narrow jet-like feature” that could have been emanating from a brand-new star. It’s been getting larger over the past two decades, moving more than 60 billion miles further into the universe.

The new images were presented at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle this week.

Sources: Hubble European Space Agency Information Centre and Space Telescope Science Institute

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.

‘Elephant Trunks’ Crowd Distant Star Cluster, Raising New Questions About Stellar Formation

Star winds are pushing the gas around NGC 3572 into “elephant trunks”, as you can see if you look carefully as this picture snapped by a La Silla Observatory telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. It’s a demonstration of the power of the youngster blue-white stars embedded in the cloud, which are generating huge gusts blowing the gas and dust away from them.

It’s common for young stars to form in groups. After a few million years growing together, their respective gravities pushes everything further apart, and the stars then finish their lifetimes on their own. Looking at young star clusters such as this gives astronomers a better sense about how our own Sun began its life.

If we zoomed closer to those elephant trunks, they would look similar to the famous “Pillars of Creation” image captured in 1995 by the Hubble Space Telescope in the Eagle Nebula (M16). NASA also did a follow-up observation using infrared wavelengths in 2005 and 2011, which made the young stars a bit easier to see amid the gas and dust.

One of the Hubble Space Telescope's most famous images, the "Pillars of Creation" in the Eagle Nebula. Credit: NASA/ESA
One of the Hubble Space Telescope’s most famous images, the “Pillars of Creation” in the Eagle Nebula. Credit: NASA/ESA

As for the picture of NGC 3572, the high-resolution image from the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope is also revealing new mysteries that will require further investigation, ESO stated.

“A strange feature captured in this image is the tiny ring-like nebula located slightly above the centre of the image,” ESO wrote. “Astronomers still are a little uncertain about the origin of this curious feature. It is probably a dense leftover from the molecular cloud that formed the cluster, perhaps a bubble created around a very bright hot star. But some authors have considered that it may be some kind of oddly shaped planetary nebula — the remnants of a dying star.”

Astronomers were also surprised by seeing stars older than 10 million years old within this image that were still picking up mass, which implies that planetary formation could take longer than previously believed.

Research was led by ESO astronomer Giacomo Beccari.

Source: European Southern Observatory

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: September 3-9, 2012

Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! With the change in seasons becoming quickly apparent, it’s time to put some early hours dark skies to good use and enjoy some favorite nebulae. If you’ve enjoyed the Mars-mania, then you’ll also enjoy the return of Mars in the pre-dawn hours. Speaking of early mornings, be sure to watch as the Moon and Jupiter head for a splendid conjunction this coming Saturday. When you’re ready, grab your binoculars and set up your telescopes… It’s time to dance!

Monday, September 3 – Tonight it’s time for us to head directly between the two lower stars in the constellations of Lyra and grab the “Ring”.

First discovered by French astronomer, Antoine Darquier in 1779, the “Ring” was cataloged later that year by Charles Messier as M57 (Right Ascension: 18 : 53.6 – Declination: +33 : 02). In binoculars the “Ring” will appear as slightly larger than a star, yet it cannot be focused to a sharp point. To a modest telescope at even low power, the M57 turns into a glowing donut against a wonderfully stellar backdrop. The average accepted distance to this unusual structure is believed to be around 1,400 light years and how you see the “Ring” on any given night is highly attributable to conditions. As aperture and power increase, so do details and it is not impossible to see braiding in the nebula structure with scopes as small as eight inches on a fine night, or to pick up the star caught on the edge in even smaller apertures.

Like all planetary nebula, seeing the central star is considered the ultimate of viewing. The central itself is a peculiar bluish dwarf which gives off a continuous spectrum and might very well be a variable. At times, this shy, near 15th magnitude star can be seen with ease with a 12.5? telescope, yet be elusive to 31? in aperture weeks later. No matter what details you may see, reach for the “Ring” tonight. You’ll be glad you did.

Tuesday, September 4 – Of course, studying some of the summer’s finest means that we’d be very remiss if we didn’t look at another cosmic curiosity – “The Blinking Planetary”.

Located a couple of degrees east of visible star Theta Cygnii, and in the same lower power field as 16 Cygnii, the NGC 6826 (Right Ascension: 19 : 44.8 – Declination: +50 : 31) is often referred to as the “Blinking Planetary” nebula. Viewable in even small telescopes at mid to high power, you’ll learn very quickly how it came about its name. When you look directly at it, you can only see the central 9th magnitude star. Now, look away. Focus your attention on visual double 16 Cygnii. See that? When you avert, the nebula itself is visible. This is actually a trick of the eye. The central portion of our vision is more sensitive to detail and will only see the central star. At the edge of our vision, we are more likely to see dim light, and the planetary nebula appears. Located around 2,000 light years from our solar system, it doesn’t matter if the “Blinking Planetary” is a trick of the eye or not… Because it’s cool!

Wednesday, September 5 – If you’re up before dawn, maybe you’ve noticed the return of Mars? It’s been on the move and this universal date marks its official change in position from the constellation of Virgo into the constellation of Libra.

Don’t put away your binoculars tonight just because you think this next study is beyond you… Just lift your sights three degrees higher than the “Omega” and tonight we’ll return again to fly with the “Eagle” – M16 (Right Ascension: 18 : 18.8 – Declination: -13 : 47)

Small binoculars will have no trouble distinguishing the cluster of stars discovered by de Cheseaux in 1746, but larger binoculars and small telescopes from a dark sky site will also see a faint nebulosity to the region that was reported by Messier in 1764. This “faint light” will remind you highly of the reflection that is seen within the Pleiades, or “Rosette” nebula. While the most outstanding views of the “Eagle” nebula are in photographs, larger telescopes will have no problem picking out a vague cloud of nebula, encased stars and an unusual dark obscuration in the center which has always reminded this author as a “Klingon Bird of Prey”. While all of this is very grand, what’s really interesting is the little notch on the northeast edge of the nebula. This is easily seen under good conditions with scopes as small as 8? and is undeniable in larger aperture. This tiny “notch” rocketed to worldwide fame when viewed through the eyes of the Hubble. It’s name? “The Pillars of Creation”.

Thursday, September 6 – Today celebrates the founding of the Astronomical and Astrophysical Society of America. Started in 1899, it is now known as the American Astronomical Society.

Tonight let’s relax a little bit and have a look at a superb open cluster that stays superb no matter if you use small binoculars or a big telescope. Of whom do I speak so highly? M34 (Right Ascension: 2 : 42.0 – Declination: +42 : 47)…

Easily found on Perseus west border by scanning between Beta Perseii (Algol) and Gamma Andromeda (Almach), the M34 was discovered by Messier in 1764. Containing around 80 members, the central knot of stars is what truly makes it beautiful. At around 1400 light years away, this stellar collection is believed to be around 10 million years old. While binocular users are going to be very happy with this object, scopists are going to appreciate the fact that there is a double right in the heart of M34. This fixed pair is around magnitude 8 and separated by about 20?.

Friday, September 7 – Tonight we are going to take a journey once again toward an area which has intrigued this author since I first laid eyes on it with a telescope. Some think it difficult to find, but there is a very simple trick. Look for the primary stars of Sagitta just to the west of bright Albireo. Make note of the distance between the two brightest and look exactly that distance north of the “tip of the arrow” and you’ll find the M27 (Right Ascension: 19 : 59.6 – Declination: +22 : 43).

Discovered in 1764 by Messier in a three and a half foot telescope, I discovered this 48,000 year old planetary nebula for the first time in a 4.5? telescope. I was hooked immediately. Here before my eager eyes was a glowing green “apple core” which had a quality about it that I did not understand. It somehow moved… It pulsated. It appeared “living”.

For many years I quested to understand the 850 light year distant M27, but no one could answer my questions. I researched and learned it was made up of doubly ionized oxygen. I had hoped that perhaps there was a spectral reason to what I viewed year after year – but still no answer. Like all amateurs, I became the victim of “aperture fever” and I continued to study the M27 with a 12.5? telescope, never realizing the answer was right there – I just hadn’t powered up enough.

Several years later while studying at the Observatory, I was viewing through a friend’s identical 12.5? telescope and as chance would have it, he was using about twice the magnification that I normally used on the “Dumbbell”. Imagine my total astonishment as I realized for the very first time that the faint central star had an even fainter companion that made it seem to wink! At smaller apertures or low power, this was not revealed. Still, the eye could “see” a movement within the nebula – the central, radiating star and its companion.

Do not sell the “Dumbbell” short. It can be seen as a small, unresolved area in common binoculars, easily picked out with larger binoculars as an irregular planetary nebula, and turns astounding with even the smallest of telescopes. In the words of Burnham, “The observer who spends a few moments in quiet contemplation of this nebula will be made aware of direct contact with cosmic things; even the radiation reaching us from the celestial depths is of a type unknown on Earth…”

Saturday, September 8 – Heads up for early risers! This morning is a beautiful conjunction of Jupiter and the Moon. For viewers in the western regions of Southern America, this is an occultation event, so be sure to check for times in your area!

Today in 1966, a legend was born as the television program Star Trek premiered. Created by Gene Roddenberry, its enduring legacy inspired several generations to an interest in space, astronomy, and technology. Its five-year mission still airs – along with numerous movie and series sequels. May Star Trek continue to “live long and prosper!”

Tonight a great opportunity to have another look at all the things we’ve studied this week. However, I would encourage those of you with larger binoculars and telescopes to head for a dark sky location, because tonight we are going on a quest… The quest for the holy “Veil”.

By no means is the Veil Nebula Complex an easy one. The brightest portion, NGC 6992 (Right Ascension: 20 : 56.4 – Declination: +31 : 43), can be spotted in large binoculars and you can find it just slightly south of a central point between Epsilon and Zeta Cygnii. The NGC 6992 is much better in a 6-8? scope however, and low power is essential to see the long ghostly filaments which span more than a degree of sky. About two and a half degrees west/southwest, and incorporating star 52 is another long narrow ribbon of what may be classified as a supernova remnant. When aperture reaches the 12? range, so does the true breadth of this fascinating complex. It is possible to trace these long filaments across several fields of view. They sometimes dim and at other times widen, but like a surreal solar flare, you will not be able to tear your eyes away from this area. Another undesignated area lies between the two NGCs, and the whole 1,500 light year distant area spans over two and a half degrees. Sometimes known as the “Cygnus Loop”, it’s definitely one of the summer’s finest objects.

Sunday, September 9 – On this day in 1839, John Herschel froze time by making the very first glass plate photograph – and we’re glad he did. His photo was of his father William’s famous 40-foot telescope in Slough, England. The scope had not been used in decades and was disassembled shortly after the photograph was taken. Later in 1892, on this same day, Edward Emerson Barnard was busy at Lick Observatory discovering Jupiter’s innermost moon – Amalthea.

Do I always save the best for last? You bet. And tonight it’s my favorite galaxy structure – edge-on.

The NGC 7814 (Right Ascension: 0 : 03.3 – Declination: +16 : 09) is easy enough to find. Just head towards Gamma Pegasi and look in your finderscope for a star that is around 3 degrees to the northwest. At low power you will see the galaxy to the southeast of this star as a scratch of light. Up the power in both aperture and magnification and enjoy! This galaxy has a deeply concentrated nucleus and a very prominent dissecting dark dustlane. By the way… It’s Caldwell 43.

Until next week? Wishing you clear skies!

Four views of M57 – Credit: NOAO/AURA/NSF

The Eagle Nebula as You’ve Never Seen it Before


Here’s a stunning new look deep inside the iconic “Pillars of Creation.” As opposed to the famous Hubble Space Telescope image (below) — which shows mainly the surface of the pillars of gas and dust — this composite image from ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory in far-infrared and XMM-Newton telescope in X-rays allows astronomers to peer inside the pillars and see more detail of the structures in this region. It shows how the hot young stars detected by the X-ray observations are carving out cavities, sculpting and interacting with the surrounding ultra-cool gas and dust.

But enjoy the view while you can. The sad part is that likely, this beautiful region has already been destroyed by a supernova 6,000 years ago. But because of the distance, we haven’t seen it happen yet.

Gas Pillars in the Eagle Nebula
Gas Pillars in the Eagle Nebula, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI, Hester & Scowen (Arizona State University)

The Eagle Nebula is 6,500 light-years away in the constellation of Serpens. It contains a young hot star cluster, NGC6611, which is visible with modest back-yard telescopes. This cluster is sculpting and illuminating the surrounding gas and dust, resulting in a huge hollowed-out cavity and pillars, each several light-years long.

The Hubble image hinted at new stars being born within the pillars, deep inside small clumps known as ‘evaporating gaseous globules’ or EGGs, but because of the obscuring dust, Hubble’s visible light picture was unable to see inside and prove that young stars were indeed forming.

The new image shows those hot young stars are responsible for carving the pillars.

The new image also uses data from near-infrared images from the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO’s) Very Large Telescope at Paranal, Chile, and visible-light data from its Max Planck Gesellschaft 2.2m diameter telescope at La Silla, Chile. All the individual images are below:

M16 seen in several different wavelengths. Credits: far-infrared: ESA/Herschel/PACS/SPIRE/Hill, Motte, HOBYS Key Programme Consortium; ESA/XMM-Newton/EPIC/XMM-Newton-SOC/Boulanger; optical: MPG/ESO; near-infrared/VLT/ISAAC/McCaughrean & Andersen/AIP/ESO

Earlier mid-infrared images from ESA’s Infrared Space Observatory and NASA’s Spitzer, and the new XMM-Newton data, have led astronomers to suspect that one of the massive, hot stars in NGC6611 may have exploded in a supernova 6,000 years ago, emitting a shockwave that destroyed the pillars. But we won’t see the destruction for several hundred years yet.

Source: ESA