This cosmic dust is basically a gargantuan, radiation-spewing fairyS

That's how the good people at NASA's Astronomy Photo of the Day describe this dust pillar, at any rate, and I know better than to argue with a bunch of astronomers armed with a flair for figurative language. And this gorgeous gas is just one small part of the generally just ridiculously impressive Eagle Nebula.

The nebula is also known as the Star Queen Nebula, which is kind of an incredible name; it also means this nebula's name provides an instant test for whether its observer prefers democracies or monarchies, as they get to choose between the all-American eagle and the regal star queen. (You could also call it Messier 16, if you're really into 18th century astronomer Charles Messier and/or hockey legend Mark Messier — I think we've now covered all possible demographic groups.) Anyway, the entire nebula is located about 7,000 light-years away, and it forms part of a packed star cluster that can be up to a million times brighter than our sun. Not bad for a collection of gas that's barely older than, well, us: it's just 1 to 2 million years old.

But what about the radiation-spewing space fairy, you quite reasonably ask? Well, for that, we'll have to go the pros from Dover NASA:

The dust sculptures of the Eagle Nebula are evaporating. As powerful starlight whittles away these cool cosmic mountains, the statuesque pillars that remain might be imagined as mythical beasts. Pictured above is one of several striking dust pillars of the Eagle Nebula that might be described as a gigantic alien fairy. This fairy, however, is ten light years tall and spews radiation much hotter than common fire. The greater Eagle Nebula, M16, is actually a giant evaporating shell of gas and dust inside of which is a growing cavity filled with a spectacular stellar nursery currently forming an open cluster of stars.

For more, including a look at the complete, even more gorgeous image, head over to the NASA APOD site.

Image Credit: The Hubble Heritage Team, (STScI/AURA), ESA, NASA