NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its launch this year and to commemorate the milestone it’s recently turned its gaze (during the course of about 15 orbits) back onto one of the most iconic targets of its career: the “Pillars of Creation,” five-light-year-high columns of cold gas in the process of being sculpted by the winds from hot young stars in the Eagle Nebula (M16), some 6,500 light-years away.
Previously imaged with Hubble in 1995, the Pillars really shine (no pun intended) in this new high-definition image acquired with the telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3, which was installed in May 2009 during STS-125, NASA’s final servicing mission for Hubble.
And in addition to visible-light* wavelengths Hubble’s WFC3 captured the Pillars in infrared as well, which pierces the dense, cold gas to reveal hidden stars inside – as well as turn the structures into eerie ghostlike shapes. Check out that version below:
As well as being beautiful, the near-infrared image of the Pillars shows newly-formed stars hidden inside the clouds of gas, which are like nurseries for newborn stars. Structures like this are very transient in the Universe, as the stars they help birth will eventually blast all the surrounding gas and dust away with their powerful stellar winds and UV radiation.
Fact: Astronomers using Hubble data have published more than 11,000 scientific papers, making it one of the most productive scientific instruments ever built.
For an idea of where the Pillars lie within the entire Eagle Nebula, see the image below taken with the National Science Foundation’s 0.9-meter telescope on Kitt Peak – the pillars are at an angle in the center.
They may be called the Pillars of Creation, but it’s the process of destruction that makes them so fantastic to look at. The ionizing radiation from the stars is what’s heating up the edges of the clouds and causing them to glow so brilliantly.
Although these are enormous cosmic structures, astronomers have been able to spot some changes that have taken place in the Pillars over the past 19 years.
By comparing the 1995 and 2014 pictures, astronomers observed a lengthening of a narrow jet-like feature that may have been ejected from a newly forming star. The jet looks like a stream of water from a garden hose. Since 1995 this jet has stretched out into space across an additional 60 billion miles, at an estimated speed of about 450,000 miles per hour.
Our Sun and Solar System may even have formed within a glowing region like this, 4.6 billion years ago.
“When we’re looking a the Eagle, we’re looking at old family photos.” said astronomer Paul Scowen, who helped create the original Hubble Pillars image, during a Google+ on Jan. 5.
Fact: Hubble has made more than one million observations since its mission began in 1990.
A quarter-century after its launch, the Hubble Space Telescope is still amazing the world with new visions of our Universe!
Read more about these images here, and you can watch the Hubble Hangout featuring Scowen below:
*The colors in the top image highlight emission from several chemical elements. Oxygen emission is blue, sulfur is orange, and hydrogen and nitrogen are green.