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A Baby Hangs Between Life and Death in Space

You’ve seen this before, right? It’s one of the most famous photos ever taken by the Hubble Space Telescope: three spectacular pillars of dust hanging in space, 6,500 light-years away.

Picture of the Pillars of Creation taken in 1995
The Pillars of Creation, 1995 Hubble Photo
Photograph Courtesy of NASA, Jeff Hester, and Paul Scowen (Arizona State University)

Now we’ve got a new version. Same clouds. Same stars. Same framing. Shot almost 20 years later by NASA and released this year. Which got me wondering: Has anything changed?

Pictuer of the Pillars of Creation from 2014
The Pillars of Creation, 2014 Hubble Photo
Photograph Courtesty of NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

The newer version has a bluer tint (an editor’s choice), but everything else, including those little wisps of dust on the tops of the pillars? They’re the same. The streaks? Gaps? Edges? Shapes? Shadows? Same, same, same, same, and same.

What was I thinking? It’s been only 19 puny Earth years between photo one and photo two. We are talking about enormous structures. It would take five years for a beam of light to cross from the top to the bottom of that horselike cloud on the left. At such scales, 19 Earth years isn’t even a blink. These clouds are so big, the time so short, obviously, there will be nothing new to see.

And yet …

There is!

Buried near the end of its press release, NASA mentions one significant change. It’s so subtle, you’d never notice without help. So I wrote Paul Scowen, one of the astrophysicists in charge, and he said, “OK, here it is.”

Picture of the annotated pillar of creation, a color photo on the left, and then a black and white image showing the change in a white line from 1995 to 2014
Photograph by NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team
Photograph by NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team


You see that box in the picture on the left?

The picture on the right is a close up of the box. In it you will see a line of light moving from the bottom to the middle. Twenty years ago, the light reached the point marked by the first arrow, labeled “1995.”

In the newest picture, the light has traveled farther up (like “a stream of water from a garden hose,” says NASA) to the second point, marked “2014.”

60,000,000,000 Miles Later

In the photo, it’s a piddling change, a fraction of a fraction of an inch. And yet, when NASA’s scientists did their calculations, it turned out that that little line of white has been racing along at a furious pace, roughly 450,000 miles per hour. So during the time between photographs, it has “stretched farther into space, across an additional 60 billion miles.”

Whoah! In just 19 years! So what could that be?

(The other pair of arrows at the top of the picture indicate a mystery. Are they connected to the line below? I asked, but no one really knows.)

NASA’s best guess is that the lower line is an enormous, fast-rushing stream of plasma, thrown out by a baby solar system trying to get born.


Picture of a drawing of a star with a face ejecting plasma from its mouth
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich


When a star is trying to pull itself together, as it grows hotter, it often emits an exhaust fume. “You see this kind of thing all the time,” says astrophysicist Ray Villard. He sent me a few pictures, just to give me a taste. Here’s a different baby wannabe star:

Young Star HH30
Source: Hubblesite.org
And here’s another:
Source: Hubblesite.org
Those streaks across the sky, Cal Tech astronomer Mike Brown told me, are “stuff escaping.”

But why? If I’m trying to get hotter and hotter, why would I let matter go? I don’t want to get cooler. I want to combust! I want to become a furnace.


Drawing of a baby star wanting to combust
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich


Mike Brown explains that, “A battle is always being fought between gravity, pulling things together, and temperature, which is literally the speed of atoms and molecules moving around.” As a star gathers more and more dust, at its center more and more atoms collide, banging into each other faster and faster and faster, and as they speed up (get hotter), some of them, a random few, reach very high speeds and end up going so fast that they’re like rocket ships—they reach escape velocity and just careen out into space.

Gravity can’t hold them.

I get that. But how come they don’t careen out in all directions, like this?


Drawing of atoms splaying away from baby star
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich


Blame Magnetism

Baby stars are surrounded by magnetic fields. And when atoms try to escape, they’re grabbed by magnetic bands that look like this:


Drawing of magnetic bands around a star
Image of magnetic bands around a star, Image Courtesy of NASA Space Place


So up they go, until they’re captured by those U-shaped lines that curve back and return to the star. These atoms are trapped. They shoot up, get lassoed, get forced back. They can’t leave. Except that, if you look closely, at the bottom and the top of the baby star there are field lines that don’t curve back.

You see them there? At either pole? Like little highways into deep space? They either don’t bend or they bend so slightly that, Mike Brown says, “they turn out to never actually connect back … They get tangled up in the galactic magnetic field and are what are called ‘open field lines.’” Open field lines become giant exhaust pipes.

Eventually those careening atoms banging about inside the baby star will find these express exit lanes and whooooosh! They get shot out at crazy speeds billions of miles across the universe.

That’s a healthy thing. It means this infant star is full of spit and muscle. It’s growing. It’s spitting. It’s doing what it’s supposed to do.


Picture of a drawing of a star saying 'uh oh'
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich


So the extra white line in the newest Hubble photo is evidence of a nativity story. A baby star is being born. Unless the baby won’t make it because the nursery is being blown to smithereens.

Will the Baby Be Born?

When astrophysicist Paul Scowen of Arizona State University looked at the first Hubble picture 19 years ago, he remembered being “impressed by how transitory these structures are.” These giant clouds, mighty as they seem, “are actively being ablated away before our very eyes. The ghostly bluish haze around the dense edges of the pillars is material getting heated up and evaporating away into space.”

If you look at the tippy top of the column on the left, you can see wisps of gas flying off, dissolving away. Scowen thinks these three columns were once a single enormous clump but that solar winds have ripped away those in-between spaces, creating enormous cavities.


Picture of the Pillars of Creation from 2014
The Pillars of Creation, 2014 Hubble Photo
Photograph Courtesty of NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)


What About the Baby?

Scowen guesses our little proto-solar system has been spinning itself into being for about 600,000 years. It feeds on the cosmic dust around it. That’s its food, its sustenance. Scowen figures it needs another 300,000 years to become a true star. And the question is, will the dust cloud stay intact long enough to nourish the baby?

“We have caught these pillars at a very unique and short-lived moment in their evolution,” he says. On the one hand, we’ve got this little star furiously trying to gather stuff in, while all around it solar winds from nearby stars and UV radiation are trying to strip and sweep that stuff away.

All we can say is, for the moment, the baby is strong. So far, the newest Hubble photo tells us this is still a Genesis story.

Until it isn’t. But we will root for that soft white line to keep growing.

For the next 300,000 years, I’m keeping my fingers crossed.


Big thanks to astronomer Mike Brown at Caltech, who had to hold my hand through the physics of birthing a star. He kept sending me “this is not quite right” letters as I moved from draft to draft, but if there are any errors, they aren’t his, they’re all mine. And to freelance science reporter (and friend) Angus Chen who taught me some elementary magnetism lessons. Also to Ray Villard at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland and to Arizona State University’s Paul Scowen; without Paul’s arrow pictures, I’d have had no story.

30 thoughts on “A Baby Hangs Between Life and Death in Space

  1. Love you on Radiolab, great to see you here. And celebrating the birth of a blog writing about the birth of a star is oh-so-appropriate, and oh-so-Robert-Krulwich.
    I’m rooting for your trail of wisdom to keep growing, and for us to eagerly follow. Don’t know about 300,000 years, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

  2. Robert, I love you and this new blog and your writing everywhere and, most of all, Radiolab. So please know I mean it in only the kindest and gentlest way when I ask…no, beg…you to lowercase the t in Caltech, just as I kept that l lowercased in Radiolab. As an editor at Caltech, I find that each and every uppercased t is a teensy little stab in my heart. Thank you…for your consideration of my request and for all you teach us, all the time.

  3. Great article! Just enough sciency detail to get me interested but not enough to boggle the mind. Also, you are not a great artist. Sorry.

  4. I just tried to do the math on the number of Earth’s that could fill that tiny gap. 93 Million miles (lets say 100 million for simplicity) = Earth to Sun = approx. 12,000 Earths. 10x 100 Million = 1 billion = 120,000 Earths.
    60 Billion = 120,000 x 60 = 7,200,000 Earths will fit in the distance this streak has travelled between 1995 and 2014. Very cool!!!!

  5. Thanks for that interesting article, even if it was buried in baby talk and gosh-wowness. (Is there a chance you might like to consider the possibility that your audience isn’t as dumb as custard?)

  6. Fascinating post! So am I just seeing patterns where there are none (as the human brain is want to do)? Or is there another arc of baby star vomit shooting out of the lower right that looks like it might be – if not a continuation of the same line (swirling the way galaxies swirl), maybe another open field line? http://imgur.com/gallery/LXlntUo

  7. My engineering brain likes to think of these Nebula as vast manufacturing machines carving out of cosmic dust magnificent stars. Bravo for cranking out an interesting piece of cosmic physics that anyone can understand.

  8. Robert, I really liked the article and I’m really happy to find that you are blogging again. I hope you won’t let the pedantry and snark of the internet get you down. Thanks

  9. Hooray! You have a blog again! Well I have PhD in biophysics and I still like your “gosh-wowness”. It reminds me of the beauty in Science that I forget when staring at my raw data.

  10. @ Robert: really an insightful article! wonderful job!

    @ Lori Oliwenstein: if you’re obsessed with the lowercased ‘t’, it would be very kind of you to call and tell him. no need to show off your editorial skills here.

    @ LizR: yes they are. you’re most welcome here!

  11. One of the most endearing qualities of Robert IS the gosh-wowness! I was thrilled to see Mr.Krulwich has a new blog.

  12. LizR … yes, some of us are dumb as custard. Robert’s articles are ALWAYS entertaining and informative and help us dummies understand a little more of the vast world around us.
    Thanks Robert !!!

    1. LizR….Thanks for writing in, but I am suddenly feeling a little embarrassed for Custard. Being, alas, a combination of milk and egg yolk, I’ll concede custard doesn’t get to the library much, but on the other hand — it’s a great traveler. You’ll find custards everywhere, which means it speaks many languages, is ingeniously adaptable, and can make a living in radically different gastronomies. Custard may appear dumb, but like this column, it’s mulling things in its own quiet, particluar way.

  13. Sincere thanks for the story. I’m pretty sure that’s what draws me to your style… in a world as tragic and serious as ours can be, I really appreciate the serious investigation couched in a lighthearted spin.

    Occasionally dumb as custard

  14. one wonders what is 3 dimension in space. what type or class of attraction or repulse sum exists – how can one distinguish a mass or liquid explosion and the movement of gas mass in that dimension expression – how can we probe our future

  15. YES!! I finally found you again and am so thankful.
    Yet another great explanation(with wonderful artistic assist) that I can understand and think about for hours…

  16. Some cutting remarks considering the enormity of the subject, how picky can some folks be,then again we are mere humans when all’s said and done. Enjoyed it all,snubs accepted.

  17. I’m dumb as custard. I like how you write in a way that makes astronomy available to a wide range of ages, levels of knowledge and intelligence. It’s an accessible read that fuels my curiosity.

  18. A great article sir, but in phrases like “single enormous clump but that solar winds have ripped away” is the word ‘solar’ appropriate or should it be ‘stellar’ ?

  19. The things people will believe! Since when does matter ejecting from any kind of blob produce a luminous and coherent line of debris that shows no change in luminosity even though the density of ejecting matter must be declining? If this was a case of matter being ejected, it also must be displacing matter along the way since it is in a cloud. Also, why would the ejecta be luminous and its source not?

    This looks more like a lightning bolt within a cloud. The luminosity is the result of molecules already present in the cloud becoming electrically charged and emitting light as the electrostatic charge difference between two regions produces a shorting current. This is a large scale version of a thunderstorm or a volcanic eruption.

  20. So glad to see the Krulwich blog reappear! I was so sad when your blog got shuttered, what a happy internet surprise!

  21. Really good article! And an amazing picture. I can’t stop looking at it. This is the first time I’ve read an article by Robert and I found it very engaging and easy to follow.

    Obviously I am as dumb as a mixture of milk and eggs thickened by heat but fairplay and ignore the gobeens who are nitpicking. They clearly read the entire article despite all the gosh-wowness. (Also brilliant and eloquent phrasing there from LizR – thanks missus).

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