November 30, 2019 0

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 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.

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