The Pillars of Creation: their formation has baffled scientists for years

A team of Irish scientists may have discovered the key to understanding one of the great mysteries of the universe: where did the famous “Pillars of Creation” get their shape?

The “Pillars of Creation”, dense columns within giant clouds of dust and gas where massive stars form, were first pictured by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995. They instantly became famous around the world.

The Web site Space.Com ranked the iconic images in the Top 10 pictures of space, describing them as “eerie, dark pillar-like structures” which “are columns of cool, interstellar hydrogen gas and dust that serve as incubators for new stars.”

However, astronomers still can’t quite agree on what caused the mysterious Pillars, located in a region of space known as the Eagle Nebula, which is 7000 light-years away, to take their shape.

But a team of scientists from the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies think they may have the answer.

Led by Dr Andrew Lim, the scientists say that the Pillars of Creation may be formed by gaseous clumps being pushed into shadowed areas by radiation from close-by stars.

Using computer models, the Dublin group has found that clumps of gas creep towards darker areas, causing pile-ups behind dense knots of gas and dust that screen the intense ultraviolet light emitted by the stars.

“We created a simulation with a random distribution of lots of dense clouds with different sizes and shapes,” said Jonathan Mackey, a PhD student from the institute who presented his findings to the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science in Hatfield, England, last week.

 “We found that in certain cases a number of clouds can merge together in the shadows to form structures that look very like the observed pillars.”

MacKey, who is 32, says that he first became interested in astronomy as a young boy, when his parents took him to an observatory to see the famous Halley’s Comet, which last appeared in 1986.

He added that he, along with the rest of the astronomy world, was eagerly waiting to see next month’s space mission, when seven astronauts on the Atlantis shuttle embark on an 11-day mission to fix the Hubble Telescope, which is located some 350 miles away from Earth. The crew will need to take five spacewalks to replace broken parts of the telescope.