Dark Heart of a Nebula Finally Photographed
An inside view of the heart of the Eagle Nebula, captured by the Herschel space telescope on Oct. 24, 2009.
Credit: ESA and the SPIRE & PACS consortia, P. André (CEA Saclay) for the Gould’s Belt Key Programme Consortia

A dark cloud at the heart of the Eagle Nebula had gone unseen until the Herschel Space Observatory peered inside for a new look, released today.

The nebula is a star-forming region about 1,000 light-years away in the constellation Aquila, the Eagle. A light-year is the distance light will travel in a year, or about 6 trillion miles (10 trillion km).

Telescopes had not been able to penetrate the thick dark clouds at the very center of this stellar nursery. Herschel used its strong sensitivity at the longest wavelengths of infrared light to probe into this shrouded region.

The resulting photograph reveals roughly 700 newly-forming stars stretched along filaments of dust spanning the 65 light-year-wide image. The dust and gas in the filaments are at various stages of condensing to become stars someday. Once they become dense enough to ignite nuclear fusion in their cores, the objects are considered true stars.

The two areas glowing brightest in icy blue light are regions where large newborn stars are causing hydrogen gas to shine.

The European Space Agency (ESA)'s Herschel telescope was launched in May 2009 to study the universe in infrared light. The Eagle nebula image is the first release of ESA's Online Showcase of Herschel Images.