Can We See the Pillars of Creation with Amateur Astronomy Telescopes

In the late spring skies in the northern hemisphere, looking towards the southeast in the hours after midnight, there is a region of star formation that right now, is home to newborn stars: The Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula

Published on 6th Jun, 2019

Amateur Telescope Images that Rival Space Telescopes

In the late spring skies in the northern hemisphere, looking towards the southeast in the hours after midnight local time, there is a region of star formation that right now, is home to newborn stars.

This object lies 6,500 light years away and at this time of year, from our vantage on Earth, it is nestled between the gorgeous planets Saturn and Jupiter and is just above the constellation of Sagittarius, which points us to the center of our Milky Way Galaxy.

The Eagle Nebula, or Messier 16 as it is also known, is only about two million years old and is part of a star cluster containing some 8,100 stars. And while the brightest stars in the cluster are visible with binoculars, the nebula itself can only be seen through a telescope.

The Eagle Nebula has become as famous as the Orion Nebula thanks in part to the magnificent views of this region from the Hubble Space Telescope as well as the stunning images from the ground taken by the European Southern Observatory. For its 25th anniversary, Hubble captured this iconic region within the much larger molecular hydrogen network that makes up the stellar nursery complex.

This area, dubbed The Pillars of Creation, is a stunning display of three enormous towers of gas and dust, each one standing light-years tall. They are giving birth to new stars, buried within their dusty spires.

Here is the Pillars of Creation taken by Hubble in both visible and infrared light. The dusty columns of hydrogen gas, and indeed the entire nebula, are emitting light, meaning that the stars forming within are causing the nebula to give off its own photons, making this an emission nebula.

Because the Eagle is an emission nebula, filters can be employed that exclude stray light and allow only those wavelengths that are being emitted by the nebula itself. For this image, the Hubble Space Telescope took several pictures in filters that let through the wavelengths of OIII, Halpha, NII and SII.

This image taken by ESO was made by combining many images taken in the Red, Green and Blue optical bands through the 2.2-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.

But what about imaging this nebula with amateur equipment? Can amateurs see this nebula?

Here is the Eagle nebula taken using off-the-shelf equipment available to the amateur astronomer. This image was taken using a 17 inch reflector telescope with an SBIG 16803 CCD camera mounted on the back. Taken over the course of an evening at a remote observatory in Landers California operated by OPT Telescopes.

The exposures represented here were combined from a total of 18 different images taken in red, green, blue and h-alpha filters, filters very similar to those used by the Hubble but available commercially. The RGB images were exposed for 10 minutes each while the H-alpha image was exposed for 30 minutes.

Once combined, detail unavailable to our naked eyes are easily seen. The dark, blobby regions are believed to be protostars, nascent stellar systems just starting out. Also easily visible are the iconic Pillars of Creation.

Imaging the heavens on a scale rivalling professional results has finally reached amateur astronomers using modest equipment. Now, we can delve deep into the heavens from our own backyards and capture glimpses of our universe like never before.