Visit The Cosmic Pillars of Creation, Again

Twenty Years Later, The Pillars of Creation Still Amaze Us

A visible-light (left) and infrared (right) view of the Pillars of Creation taken with HST's Wide Field Camera 3. NASA, ESA/Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team

Do you remember the first time you saw the "Pillars of Creation"? This cosmic object and the ghostly images of it that showed up in January 1995, made by astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope, captured people's imaginations with their beauty. The PIllars are part of a a starbirth region similar to the Orion Nebula and others in our own galaxy where hot young stars are heating up clouds of gas and dust and where stellar "EGGs" (short for "evaporating gaseous globules") are still forming stars that may someday light up that part of the galaxy.  

The clouds that make up the Pillars are seeded with young protostellar objects—essentially starbabies—hidden away from our view. Or, at least they were until astronomers developed a way to use infrared-sensitive instruments to look through those clouds to get at the babies within. The image here is the result of Hubble's ability to peer past the veil that hides starbirth from our prying eyes. The view is amazing. 

Now Hubble has been pointed again toward the the famous pillars. Its Wide-Field 3 camera captured the multi-colored glow of the nebula's gas clouds, revealed wispy tendrils of dark cosmic dust, and looks at the rust-coloured elephants’ trunk-shaped pillars. The telescope's  visible-light image it took provided an updated, sharper view of the scene that so caught everyone's attention in 1995. 

In addition to this new visible-light image, Hubble has provided a detailed view that you'd get if you could strip away the clouds of gas and dust hiding the stellar newborns in the pillars, which is what an infrared light view gives you the ability to do.  

Infrared penetrates much of the obscuring dust and gas and unveils a more unfamiliar view of the pillars, transforming them into wispy silhouettes set against a background peppered with stars. Those newborn stars, hidden in the visible-light view, show up clearly as they form within the pillars themselves.

Although the original image was dubbed the "Pillars of Creation", this new image shows that they are also pillars of destruction.  

How does that work?  There are hot, young stars out of the field of view in these images, and they emit strong radiation which destroys the dust and gas in these pillars. Essentially, the pillars are being eroded by strong winds from those massive young stars. The ghostly bluish haze around the dense edges of the pillars in the visible-light view is material that is being heated by bright young stars and evaporating away. So, it's entirely possible that the young stars that haven't cleared their pillars could be choked off from forming further as their older siblings cannibalize the gas and dust they need to form. 

Ironically, the same radiation that tears apart the pillars is also responsible for lighting them up and causing the gas and dust to glow so that Hubble can see them. 

These aren't the only clouds of gas and dust that are being sculpted by the action of hot, young stars. Astronomers find such intricate clouds around the Milky Way Galaxy—and in nearby galaxies as well. We know they exist in such places as the Carina nebula(in the southern hemisphere sky) which also contains a spectacular supermassive star about to blow up called Eta Carinae.  And, as astronomers use Hubble and other telescopes to study these places over long periods of time, they can trace motions in the clouds (presumably by jets of material flowing away from the hidden hot young stars, for example), and watch as the forces of star creation do their thing. 

The Pillars of Creation lie about 6,500 light-years away from us and is part of a larger cloud of gas and dust called the Eagle Nebula, in the constellation Serpens. 

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Petersen, Carolyn Collins. "Visit The Cosmic Pillars of Creation, Again." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Petersen, Carolyn Collins. (2021, February 16). Visit The Cosmic Pillars of Creation, Again. Retrieved from Petersen, Carolyn Collins. "Visit The Cosmic Pillars of Creation, Again." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).