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.
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.”