If you've seen pictures of space, you've seen the Pillars of Creation --a set of photogenic columns of cold gas bathed in the light of brand new star formation. Now, 20 years after the iconic 1995 shot was taken, The Hubble has gone back to take a more high definition look.
The new image, taken with a camera installed in 2009, is wider and sharper than before:
These pillars, which stand about 7,000 light years away in the Eagle Nebula, aren't uncommon formations. They're made of cold hydrogen and dust, and they're actually on their way out.
"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," Paul Scowen of Arizona State University said in a statement. Scowen co-led the original Hubble exploration of the Eagle Nebula.
In addition to the sharp new view, the Hubble caught the Pillars in infrared:
Without gas and dust in the way, we see what the Pillars of Creation are hiding: A hotbed of star birth. From HubbleSite:
The infrared image shows that the reason the pillars exist is because the very ends of them are dense, and they shadow the gas below them, creating the long, pillar-like structures. The gas in between the pillars has long since been blown away by the ionizing winds from the central star cluster located above the pillars.
At the top edge of the left-hand pillar, a gaseous fragment has been heated up and is flying away from the structure, underscoring the violent nature of star-forming regions. "These pillars represent a very dynamic, active process," Scowen said. "The gas is not being passively heated up and gently wafting away into space. The gaseous pillars are actually getting ionized (a process by which electrons are stripped off of atoms) and heated up by radiation from the massive stars. And then they are being eroded by the stars' strong winds (barrage of charged particles), which are sandblasting away the tops of these pillars."
Between 1995 and now, the astronomers report, they've seen the lengthening of an object that looks like a jet of light being shot out of the Pillars. They believe this jet -- which has traveled at a speed of around 450,000 miles per hour -- was ejected from a new star.