Elephant trunks are formations of interstellar matter found in space. More formally, scientists sometimes refer to them as "cold molecular pillars", referring to their existence in molecular clouds. They are located in the neighborhood of massive O type and B type stars, which, through their intense radiation, can create expanding regions of ionized gas known as H II regions. Elephant trunks look like massive pillars or columns of gas and dust, but they come in various shapes, lengths, and colors. Astronomers study elephant trunks because of their unique formation process and use 2D and 3D simulations to try to understand how this phenomenon occurs.
O type and B type stars are a classification of stars that strongly emit ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The UV radiation causes the surrounding cloud of hydrogen gas to ionize, forming H II regions. The gas does not ionize evenly throughout the cloud, therefore there are randomly generated clumps of denser gas scattered throughout the cloud. These dense clumps are called evaporating gaseous globules (EGGs), and they are the starting point for the formation of an elephant trunk. The pillar shape is formed when the EGGs act as a shield for the gases that lay behind them from the stellar winds. Stellar winds are a continuous flow of gas that is ejected from the stars and causes the lighter and less dense gas to erode away. The EGGs and the column of gas "downwind" from them is the basic formation of an elephant trunk.
Elephant trunks form on the outer wall of the H II region cloud. Astronomers can only study the structure of the surface of the trunks because the opaqueness of the gas obscures the internal core. The length of the columns are measured in light years, which is the distance that it takes light to travel in one year. Astronomers can calculate the densities and temperatures of the EGGs and the trunks by using infrared, millimeter, and radio observations. They have determined that elephant trunks have cold cores (20K) surrounded by warm gas (60K) with an outer hot shell (250-320K).
Pillars of Creation
The Pillars of Creation are the most famous example of elephant trunks. NASA was able to produce a picture of this formation by compositing multiple images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. It is located 7,000 light years away in the Eagle Nebula. There are multiple elephant trunks in the formation, one of which is around seven light years long. Astronomers have made observations suggesting that the Pillars were likely destroyed by the shock waves of a supernova 6,000 years ago.
The Rosette Nebula is an example of an unusual shape that an elephant trunk can form. It has a double helix structure instead of the normal straight column. The double helix is caused by the presence of magnetic fields and electric currents lined up along the trunks axis. This makes the filaments of the columns wavy instead of straight like they are in normal trunks. These filaments wrap around each other rather than line up next to each other which forms the twisted structure.
The star forming complex NGC 7822 in the constellation of Cepheus has several elephant trunk formations. Some of these have the narrow, slightly winding shape that actually make them reminiscent of the trunk of an elephant.
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