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Hubble Revisits an Icon, the Pillars of Creation

Twenty years ago, the Hubble Space Telescope snapped one of its most iconic images ever. The three towering columns of gas bathed in the light of hot, young stars came to be called the Pillars of Creation — and they showed up on everything from t-shirts to coffee mugs to rugs. Now, to celebrate its 25th anniversary, Hubble has taken a new image of the well-known region in the Eagle Nebula, about 6,500 light-years away.

It’s even more glorious than the first.

Released today during the American Astronomical Society’s annual winter meeting, the new Hubble photo is sharper than the original (see full-size image here). It has a wider field of view, too, and reveals the tenuous base of the cold, gassy columns. Astronomers asked the telescope to shoot the same region in both visible and infrared light, which is relaying some interesting things about this place that’s come to be so familiar.

Hubble's new view of the Eagle Nebula in both visible (left) and infrared (right). (NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team)
Hubble’s new view of the Eagle Nebula in both visible (left) and infrared (right). (NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team)

Infrared light can penetrate clouds of dust and gas that visible light cannot. So, when seen in the infrared, the pillars look like mere wisps set against a sea of countless stars. But inside those 5-light-year-tall towers are newborn stars. The uppermost tips of the pillars, the light blue parts that look as though they’re riding atop a bubbling cosmic eruption, are being pummeled by violent stellar winds. Perhaps as evidence of this stellar battering, a tuft of gas near the top of the tallest pillar is flying away.

And though these are known as the pillars of creation, astronomer Paul Scowen notes that they’re also regions of destruction. “I’m impressed by how transitory these structures are. They are actively being ablated away before our very eyes,” says Scowen, of Arizona State University, in a statement. He helped lead the original Hubble observations 20 years ago. “The ghostly bluish haze around the dense edges of the pillars is material getting heated up and evaporating away into space. We have caught these pillars at a very unique and short-lived moment in their evolution.”

An icon, revisited. (NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team)
An icon, revisited. (NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team)

80 thoughts on “Hubble Revisits an Icon, the Pillars of Creation

  1. might be dumb question but how much has this photo changed since it was originally taken? ie over 15 years would you notice any changes?

  2. The three pillars of creation are an awe inspiring sight. Maybe only because it is infrared light – or because it is that way? the three pillars appear to be dissolving – disappearing. A commentary to our abuse of the planet earth?

  3. Sometimes I encounter such beautiful images that it’s so overwhelming and makes me want to cry at the beauty and awe of such a sight. This is one of them

  4. Glorious. Some of the old stars are dying out. But look how many new stars there are. If only I could have this on the ceiling in my bedroom. No wait. That might freak me out and I’d fall out of bed thinking I was drifting off into space. But it sure is amazing to see.

  5. I picture this image when I think of my own death one day, when my soul leaves my body and goes to meet my maker and all the secrets of this amazing universe shall be revealed

  6. @darcy – in the world of space and with the immense size of these being 5,000 light years tall ; 15 years is not even a blink of an eye. Probably won’t see much change in even ten thousand years.

  7. Yeah Darcy I agree, I see no difference, at least none clearly discernible, in the old and new photos. The new actually looks like a sharpened version of the old. I know these are huge clouds, but it seems like every little detail is the same after twenty years.

  8. Quite a bit of buzz has been on this and for good reason. This is the first article I have read where the difference between the infared and the visable was explained. Well done!

  9. Im guessing the vast distances we are looking at, would mean a huge event would have had to have taken place within that 19 year time frame in the past for anything to be visibly different between these two low resolution web pictures.

  10. This is awe inspiring. As I was reading the comments I thought “doesn’t anybody else see the faces within the clouds?”. Then I seen the comment made by Max. To the far right of the clouds it looks like a bearded man. There’s a few more if you really pay attention to it.

  11. Over time my ignorance of the universe, has been fed by NASA . I truly marval at their genius, to explain this so perfectly to the common man. Thank-you.. I’ll keep looking for new stars and different faces and wait patiently until NASA explore M33 with Hubble.

  12. This is really awsome. God does wonders indeed. Im happy to have witnessed such, this is a once in a lifetime experience. Big up to NASA for sharing this amazing experience with the world.

  13. You are so kewl. I do see faces and animals and lots of gas, probably from all the fast food we eat here on earth, and allot more stars, but it is beautiful, great job hubble!!

  14. I had the privilege to work on Hubble from 1969 till i retired in Nov 1990 (21 yrs) what a continuing exciting scientific endeavor -keep up the good work

  15. this seems to be a similar reaction I get when I dunk my paint brushes to rinse in a glass full of clean water; before you stir it up. Is somebody painting the universe with a big brush? lol. I also see two cats relaxing, a ladybug, a salamander ( with three legs) and that beautifuly formed bearded man. Truly awesome, I feel humbled by Hubble.

  16. 6500 light years away means that it’s 6500 in the past.. that also means if we were able to see it from Earth it would take 6500 before we would be able to see it..

  17. o, if we thought there might be a place for us to live near one of those stars, and we set out right now in a ship that could travel as fast as light (which is likely impossible ), to get there would take us a time equal to the time from ancient Mesopotamia before writing was developed until now. I’m guessing we would arrive as a totally new civilization. Might not even want to disembark.

  18. Clint, thanks for the scale estimate. I suspected something like that. Extraordinary does not cover the distance. My mind just can’t grab it.

  19. @Darcy: according to the HubbleSite press release, there have been some big changes:

    “By comparing the 1995 and 2014 pictures, astronomers also noticed a lengthening of a narrow jet-like feature that may have been ejected from a newly forming star. The jet looks like a stream of water from a garden hose. Over the intervening 19 years, this jet has stretched farther into space, across an additional 60 billion miles, at an estimated speed of about 450,000 miles per hour.”


  20. Amazing images! Note that the stars that are visible in the visible-light image shows up as white stars in the infra-red image. The stars in the IR image that appear yellow are not evident in the image taken in the visible-light image.

  21. I too also wonder about the difference. It would be great to subtract one from the other and see what the resulting image is. I wonder if we could get NASA to do this and release that photograph as well. That would be exciting.

  22. Another think I noticed when looking at the infrared is how many more emitting sources show up. I wonder if they are stars/suns or planets? They are not emitting visible light, but are emitting infrared. Would love to see a UV also of this. Also, some of the clouds must not be emitting as sources, so that means they are at different distances than the others? Or they do not have emitting sources within them to illuminate them, which would also suggest different distances. And how far are those distances. Is the illumination from within, or without? So many questions and so few answers. And can you imagine the physics behind that stuff, and the chemical reactions going on every millisecond? Infinite to our little pea brains. We cannot even comprehend what is going on here, not even in our body every millisecond. Humbles oneself. or should I say, Hubbles oneself. And they say God and science cannot coexist. I say this argues for that. If any power is infinite in our existence, it is that. If we are lucky we might have a few humans that travel over 17,000 per hour. The speed of light = 670 616 629 miles / hour. Now we only have to go about 64,793,400,772 (64 billion) times faster to get somebody there during their lifetime. I wonder if we ever will before we destroy this planet? Maybe if we looked more at the wonder of the universe we would not rush so fast to destroy this one we live in.

  23. Incredible how beautiful science can be. I feel strange when watching something like this picture at my desk. It feels so surreal. There is nothing that would permit me to think that it actually exists out there. I feel like I was abandoned and left alone in the sea. I wish Hubble’s telescope another amazing 25 years of service.

  24. I have had a poster of “Pillars of Creation” on my office wall for years. It reminds me how inconsequential we and all our affairs are. (When I needed such a reminder). But I also reminded myself that the power and impact of the photo are the result of NASA doing a wonderful job of coloring a pretty bland picture, if viewed by the naked human eye. Beauty was in the airbrushes of NASA. Nothing wrong with that; their artistry allowed me to grasp for a moment an image of an early stage of our creation.

  25. Hubble’s wonderful pictures of the Pillars of Creation are glorious to behold. The images make us witnesses of past and continuing events of cosmic creation. The pictures should not only amaze us at the vastness of the cosmos and its apparently infinite space. It should shock us to the awareness of our solar system and its uniqueness of life on Planet Earth. This knowledge and truth should transform all intelligent inhabitants of the Planet Earth, into responsible citizens that re dedicated to protect the Earth from careless greedy exploitation of natural resources, pollution and degradation of the environment, wars and careless attempts to exterminate each other in the name of God, economic ideologies.greed and national pride or even military imperialism. I am glad I live on Earth and not on any other planet. My true heaven is here on Earth and no in the sky or vast space found by Hubble!

  26. uh yeah prof. E.K.T., What you said! Because I myself am speechless. I’d love to swim in that slender velvet swirling twinkling mass.

  27. totally unreachable but very fascinating to know … man can never reach light speed unless the creator of this universe gives the formula on how to bend time and space.

  28. In response to George Anderson’s question: we’ll know that when some hotshot turns Stephen Hawking’s theories into a working Warp Drive!

  29. The creator made the universe so vast in order for us to never run out of things to see and consider. As a species, we have unending curiosity and to run out of things to be curious about would be a tragedy and perhaps the end of us.

  30. Increíble, pero espectacular. El Universo es grandioso, no lo podemos negar. Una persona que naciera hoy, jamás llegaría a esos lugares, ya que no le alcanzaría la vida para el trayecto de cientos de miles de años luz.

  31. Looks like a family of inter stellar creatures – father, mother and new born child. The Holy Family in flight to Egypt?

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