It’s been 20 years since the Hubble space telescope first saw it. Part of a gas nebula so poetically beautiful that it became known as the “pillars of creation.” NASA scientists have returned their gaze back to the pillars, now with improved high definition technology, and the results are stunning.
According to NASA, the pillars of creation are actually three columns of icy cold gas, splashed with ultraviolet light from a cluster of young, massive stars in the Eagle Nebula (also known as M16).
The new photos were taken with the wide field camera 3, installed in the Hubble in 2009. Just like with the original iconic picture, red colors show singly ionized sulfur, blue displays double-ionized oxygen, and green represents hydrogen.
Even though they are called the Pillars of Creation, the latest photos show that they also have a destructive side. Paul Scowen from Arizona State University explained how the pillars have deteriorated.
“I’m impressed by how transitory these structures are. They 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. We have caught these pillars at a very unique and short-lived moment in their evolution.”
Back in 1995, Scowen and fellow astronomer Jeff Hester led the Hubble exploration of the Eagle Nebula. He described the first time they looked at the pillars of creation.
“I called Jeff Hester on his phone and said, ‘You need to get here now.’ 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.”
NASA also took new photos of the pillars using infrared light, which pierces through the gassy haze to reveal far more stars.
The infrared images show that the ends of the columns are made of far denser areas of cool gas. NASA reports that these knots of dust keep the lower sections of the pillars cool and able to withstand the solar winds produced by the powerful massive stars.
The gas and dust between the columns has been dispersed away by the solar winds.
According to Space.com, the original images of the pillars of creation have been featured everywhere, from postage stamps to television. Located about 7,000 light years away, the nebula serves as a birthplace for new stars.
The Hubble telescope celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2015. The space telescope has given humanity a better look at the stars than any instrument to come before it.
[Image Credit: NASA/Flickr]