One of the most famous images in astronomy is known as the “Pillars of Creation,” but a new version of it reveals that it could also be called “Pillars of Destruction.”
The images depict three towering columns of gas and dust in the Eagle Nebula, a stellar nursery about 6,500 light-years away from Earth. The shadowy pillars are back-lit by a cluster of young, massive stars – an environment similar to the one that probably gave rise to the sun, astronomers believe.
The first image was captured by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope back in 1995. It became such a sensation that it appeared on a 33-cent stamp, among other places.
One of the first people to see it was Arizona State University researcher Paul Scowen, who develops instruments to study the formation of stars and planets. As he was putting the pieces together, he summoned his colleague Jeff Hester, who retired from ASU in 2009.
“'You need to get here now,’” Scowen told Hester, according to this recounting on HubbleSite, operated by the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. “We laid the pictures out on the table, and we were just gushing because of all the incredible detail.”
Hubble turns 25 this year, and Scowen marked the occasion by taking a fresh picture of the Eagle Nebula (also known as M16). The new image is a sharper view that combines visible light and near-infrared light.
The pillars are what remain of a huge gas cloud that has had sections blown away by ionizing stellar winds, Scowen explained.
“The ghostly bluish haze around the dense edges of the pillars is material getting heated up and evaporating away into space,” he said. “These pillars represent a very dynamic, active process.”
The new image was revealed this week at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle.