In 1995, the Hubble Telescope snapped a stunning photo in the Eagle Nebula, 6,500 light years from Earth. The photo revealed three gigantic columns of cold gas, illuminated by the ultraviolet light from nearby young stars. The Pillars of Creation became one of the telescope’s most iconic and popular images.
Paul Scowen of Arizona State University in Tempe led the original Hubble observations of the Eagle Nebula. He recalled what it was like seeing the photo for the first time.
“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,” he said in a press release from NASA.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Hubble this year, the telescope turned its eyes back to the Pillars of Creation. Photos released Monday from NASA show the gas columns in a wider view with a higher definition. Hubble also snapped photos in near-infrared. The near-infrared photos pierce through the dense gas and dust to see stars being born in the middle of the gas columns.
The stellar nursery has changed significantly in 19 years, Scowen said. Since the original photo was taken, the Pillars seem to be fading away, he said. The massive nearby young stars have been stripping gas away from the Pillars, something astronomers observed in the original photo. Strong stellar winds and heat from close stars have eroded the tops of the Pillars.
“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,” Scowen told NASA.