At 7,000 light years away, are they even still there today? “There’s no difference between a pessimist who says, “Oh it’s hopeless, so don’t bother doing anything.” and an optimist who says, “Don’t bother doing anything, it’s going to turn out fine anyways.” Either way, nothing happens.” Yvon Chouinard –
The Eagle Nebula is a large, active, star-forming region located 7,000 light years away.
The original image of the Pillars of creation was a mosaic of many different images and filters, but as groundbreaking as it was, it pales in comparison to more recent data. Image credit: NASA, Jeff Hester, and Paul Scowen (Arizona State University).
Near its heart, beside a massive collection of new stars, lie the Pillars of Creation.
The 1995 and the 2015 versions, to accurate resolution scale, show off just how much more data is encoded in the more recent image. Image credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)/J. Hester, P. Scowen (Arizona State U.).
Imaged in breathtaking detail in 1995, a 20-year follow-up was done, showcasing additional details, larger field-of-view, and changes over time.
The 2015 view of the pillars of creation showcases a combination of visible and infrared data, a wide field-of-view, spectral lines that indicate the presence of a variety of heavy elements, and that showcase subtle changes over time from the earlier, 1995 image. Image credit: NASA, ESA/Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team; Acknowledgement: P. Scowen (Arizona State University, USA) and J. Hester (formerly of Arizona State University, USA).
There are subtle signs of changes that can be viewed, even over such short spans of cosmic time.
Subtle changes in the gas structure of the top pillar showcase an outflow that likely originates from a newborn, massive star inside the pillar. Image credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).
An ejected jet has extended an extra 100 billion kilometers over that time: 1000 times the Earth-Sun distance, moving at 200 km/s.
The infrared view of the pillars allows the newly forming stars, inside the pillars, to be seen. The blue signature showcases gas in the process of evaporating; the faintness of that signal indicates a relatively slow rate of evaporation. Image credit: NASA, ESA/Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team; Acknowledgement: P. Scowen (Arizona State University, USA) and J. Hester (formerly of Arizona State University, USA).
The new image includes infrared data, which penetrates the dust, revealing stars and showcasing where the gas (in blue, above) is evaporating.
By rotating and stretching these two images relative to one another, the changes from 1995 to 2015 can be overlaid. Contrary to the expectations of many, the evaporative process is slow and small. Image credit: WFC3: NASA, ESA/Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team WFPC2: NASA, ESA/Hubble, STScI, J. Hester and P. Scowen (Arizona State University).
Changes between the images indicate that the pillars are still intact today, even though the light we’re seeing came from 7,000 years ago.
A comparison of the 1995 image (top) and the 2015 image (bottom) show only slight changes in the makeup of the pillars, leading to an evaporation time on the scale of 1⁰⁶ years, not 1⁰⁴ years. Image credit: WFC3: NASA, ESA/Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team WFPC2: NASA, ESA/Hubble, STScI, J. Hester and P. Scowen (Arizona State University).
The best evidence for changes comes at the base of the pillars, indicating an evaporation time of approximately 100,000 years.
The hot dust, in red, imaged by Spitzer in 2007 was attributed to a likely supernova from 8000–9000 years ago. However, other causes of dust warming are plausible, and the other signs of a recent, catastrophic supernova failed to appear in the new data. Image credit: Spitzer Space Telescope / IRAC / MIPS; NASA / JPL-Caltech / N. Flagey (IAS/SSC) and the MIPSGAL Science Team.
An older, earlier report claimed
these pillars would be largely destroyed, but that study has been overturned. VIDEO
A three-dimensional model of the pillars shows no evidence for a recent, catastrophic supernova.
This image compares two views of the Eagle Nebula’s Pillars of Creation taken with Hubble 20 years apart. The new image, on the left, captures almost exactly the same region as in the 1995, on the right. However, the newer image uses Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, installed in 2009, to capture light from glowing oxygen, hydrogen, and sulphur with greater clarity. Having both images allows astronomers to study how the structure of the pillars is changing over time. Image credit: WFC3: NASA, ESA/Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team WFPC2: NASA, ESA/Hubble, STScI, J. Hester and P. Scowen (Arizona State University).
The pillars will continue to evaporate only slowly, eventually revealing the newborn stars within.
Mostly Mute Monday tells the story of an astronomical object or phenomenon in visuals, images, and no more than 200 words. Ethan Siegel is the author of Beyond the Galaxy and Treknology. You can pre-order his third book, currently in development: the Encyclopaedia Cosmologica.