How the ‘Pillars of Creation’ were created

A new computer simulation indicates that massive stars play a much more complex role than previously thought in future star formation.
By | Published: June 27, 2014 | Last updated on June 27, 2024
An image from the simulation showing a slice of space 25 x 25 light years across and 0.2 light years thick
An image from the simulation showing a slice of space 25 x 25 light years across and 0.2 light years thick (for reference 1 light-year is about 9.6 million million kilometers or a bit more than 63,000 times the distance from  Earth to the Sun). The model depicts how a hot star in the center of the cloud changes its surroundings over 1.6 million years, creating the “elephant trunks” seen in Hubble imagery. Insets show close-ups of a pillar and bright rimmed cloud.
S. Balfour (Univ. of Cardiff)
The famous Hubble Space Telescope image of the “Pillars of Creation” from 1995.
NASA/ESA/STScI/J. Hester and P. Scowen (Arizona State University)
The “Pillars of Creation,” an image made with the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995, is one of the most famous astronomical views. It shows how “elephant trunks” of cooler interstellar gas are eroded by the intense radiation and winds from nearby massive stars. Now Scott Balfour from Cardiff University has run a new simulation where similar structures appear with a remarkably close appearance to their real-life counterparts. He also suggests that stars that make these structures are of little help in forming new siblings.

The massive O-type stars, more than 16 times as heavy as our Sun, have short but dramatic lives. During their most stable phase on the so-called main sequence, they have surface temperatures of more than 54,000° Fahrenheit (30,000° Celsius) — the Sun’s surface is about 9900° F (5500° C) — are strong sources of ultraviolet light, and emit copious material in a powerful wind.

All of this shapes their surroundings. The O-type stars heat any interstellar gas in their vicinity, creating bubbles that act like snow ploughs sweeping up surrounding colder material. In these regions, where gas is compressed, large numbers of new stars are seen forming, so many that scientists argue that the O stars drive star formation.

In his new work, Balfour has tried to test this idea by simulating the way gas behaves over a period of 1.6 million years, a simulation that took several weeks of computing time to calculate. His model explored what would happen when a massive star forms in a smooth cloud of gas that is already collapsing under its own weight.

Light from the O-type star creates a bubble in the cloud as expected, but its future can follow one of three paths. It may expand forever; expand, contract a little, and then become almost stationary; or expand and then contract all the way back to the center of the cloud. Balfour found that only the second case leads to prolific star formation — and even then only under very specific conditions.

“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,” said Balfour.

His model also neatly replicates the bright rims and pillars seen in the Hubble image, which seem to form naturally along the outer edge of the bubble as it breaks up.

“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,” said Balfour.