With its sights set some 7,000 light-years into the darkness, the Hubble Space Telescope has captured an illuminating, yet ominous, new look at a cosmic classic. “The Pillars of Creation,” an awe-inspiring trio of gas columns coated by bright newborn stars, was first photographed by the telescope in 1995.
Now, NASA has released a new infrared look that reveals what may remain of its iconic dust columns following a supernova blast some 6,000 years ago.
“We have caught these pillars at a very unique and short-lived moment in their evolution,” said Hubble astronomer Paul Scowen in a statement. “They are actively being ablated away before our very eyes.” In a series of new images released Monday during the American Astronomical Society, Scowen showed both visible and infrared images of the columns.
Located in the Eagle Nebula, the towers are a mix of dust and young stars that span more than five light-years tall. But according to 2007 findings made using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, the gas columns crumbled before the construction of the Great Pyramids. NASA’s visible light images show the columns as still intact because the Earth is 7,000 light-years away from the columns. The difference in time and distance between the two means that visible light from whatever finally happened to the pillars will only reach Earth in 1,000 years.
For humans, looking into space is often an anachronistic exercise. By the time we see something, it is very often already gone. And it's difficult enough to conceive of the pillars as having existed in the first place—they were astonishing in scope—let alone accept the idea that the place where they once appeared might be just a starfield again.
But the infrared images may hint at the gas cloud’s grim fate. By piercing through most of the dust that cloaks the columns, the infrared light is able to show what would survive the supernova blast wave that scientists believe dismantled the columns. The image shows a mere silhouette of the towers amid a starry background. According to the astronomers, this image reveals that only the dense tip of the fragile columns would remain following the explosion, while the middle parts would be blown away. “The ghostly bluish haze around the dense edges of the pillars is material getting heated up and evaporating away into space,” said Scowen.
The visible images do provide some glimpses toward that gloomy future. When the astronomers compared the 1995 images with the recent ones they noticed that a narrow jet-like feature in the image had grown longer. The feature, which resembled water flowing from a hose, was most likely ejected mass from a young star. In the almost 20 years between snapshots, the jet had stretched an additional 60 billion miles, at an estimated speed of 450,000 miles per hour, according to the researchers.