One of the most iconic pictures of space, the “Pillars of Creation”, has been given an incredible update.
Using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers Jeff Hester and Paul Scowen took this original picture of gas and dust formations in the Eagle Nebula, 7000 light years from Earth:
That was on April 1, 1995. They used Hubble’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, which has a field of view of about 1600 x 1600 pixels, or similar to a 2.5 megapixel digital camera.
There’s actually four separate cameras in the WFPC2, and Hester and Scowen’s image was stitched together from 32 different images.
Now, to celebrate 20 years since their achievement, NASA has released a high-definition version of the image.
The technicals say because the new image was taken in near-infrared light, which penetrates further into the gas and dust, we get an incredibly in-depth view which even shows newborn stars inside the pillars not seen before.
It’s also just breathtakingly beautiful:
The new images are being unveiled at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle. Scowen, of Arizona State University in Tempe, says you can see the pillars “actively being ablated away before our very eyes”.
A theory proposed in 2011 by a student working for NASA claimed the pillars were actually destroyed 6000 years ago by a nearby supernova, meaning they will disappear from our sight in roughly 1000 years.
While it remains just a theory, the pillars are certainly eroding.
“The ghostly bluish haze around the dense edges of the pillars is material getting heated up and evaporating away into space,” Scowen said.
“We have caught these pillars at a very unique and short-lived moment in their evolution.”
Another comparison with the 1995 photo shows a jet-like feature which astronomers think may be streaming away from a newly formed star.
In the 20 years since the original photo, it is estimated to have stretched nearly 100 billion kilometres at a speed of 720,000 km/h.
“I called Jeff Hester on his phone and said, ‘You need to get here now,’” Scowen said. “We laid the pictures out on the table, and we were just gushing because of all the incredible detail that we were seeing for the very first time.”
To understand how incredible it is, it helps to know just how big these things are. The largest pillar on the left is widely accepted to be an estimated four light years tall. That puts it 37,842,113,600,000 kilometres tall.
And here’s where all of that fits inside the Eagle Nebula:
Nice spot, Hubble.