The Carina Nebula’s Stunning Pillars of Destruction
published during a waxing gibbous moon.

The Milky Way arches across this rare 360-degree panorama of the night sky above the Paranal platform, home of ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Credit: ESO/H.H. Heyer

Clouds of gas and dust called nebulas come in familiar shapes like eagles and cat eyes, but they also loom as gargantuan lagoons and pillars that are trillions of miles long. One of the most famous and most massive star-forming structures in the galaxy is the Carina Nebula, which was recently revealed in the greatest detail ever.

A laser beam launched from VLT´s 8.2-metre Yepun telescope crosses the majestic southern sky and creates an artificial star at 90 km altitude in the high Earth´s mesosphere. Credit: G. Hüdepohl;

This month, the European Southern Observatory astronomers released new images in a study using its Very Large Telescope array (VLT for short). Located in the barren, arid landscape of Chile’s Atacama Desert, the ground-based observatory uses a complicated system of mirrors in underground tunnels to look at distant objects in both visible and infrared light. It’s so good, it can see things which are an unfathomable four billion times fainter than what we could see with our naked eye.

This image was taken by the MUSE instrument, mounted on ESO’s Very Large Telescope and shows the region R44 within the Carina Nebula, 7500 light-years away. The massive stars within the star formation region slowly destroy the pillars of dust and gas from which they are born. Credit: ESO/A. McLeod

One of those celestial objects is the impressive star formation region known as Carina Nebula, which is roughly 7,500 light-years away. Because the telescope’s MUSE (Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer) instrument can take thousands of images at different wavelengths at the same time, researchers were able to comb through the dusty smog and examine its chemical makeup. What they found was a destructive process called photoevaporation.

When a star is born, it can emit blasts of radiation harsh enough to dissolve its parent clouds. The emission steals the electrons from atoms using a process called ionization, and little by little, the pillars vaporize. And so the star hubs are not only creators, they’re pillars of destruction, too.

These composite images show several pillars within the Carina Nebula which were observed and studied with the MUSE instrument, mounted on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. The massive stars within the star formation region slowly destroy the pillars of dust and gas from which they are born. Credit: ESO/A. McLeod

This process can be seen elsewhere in the galaxy, most notably in the legendary Pillars of Creation. These dynamic gas clouds incubate and spawn out stars in the Eagle Nebula 7,000 light-years away. Hubble even revisited the iconic snapshot using ultraviolet light for a new high-definition photo, as seen below. When astronomers compared the star-spitting pillars to the Carina Nebula, they linked one critical component between the structures: that fateful star radiation that heats up and evaporates the pillars.

Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)/J. Hester, P. Scowen (Arizona State U.)

Incredibly, the Pillars of Creation aren’t even around anymore; the light we are still seeing is from when they did exist. Astronomers are still sussing out what radiation actually might do to the Carina Nebula, or how clouds and stars feed another. But the MUSE will keep on keeping on till we find out.