Pillars of Creation is a photograph taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of elephant trunks of interstellar gas and dust in the Eagle Nebula, specifically the Serpens constellation, some 6,500–7,000 light years from Earth. They are so named because the gas and dust are in the process of creating new stars, while also being eroded by the light from nearby stars that have recently formed. Taken on April 1, 1995, it was named one of the top ten photographs from Hubble by Space.com. The astronomers responsible for the photo were Jeff Hester and Paul Scowen from Arizona State University. The region was rephotographed by ESA's Herschel Space Observatory in 2011, and again by the Hubble in 2014 with a newer camera (see below).
- In calling the Hubble's spectacular new image of the Eagle Nebula the Pillars of Creation, NASA scientists were tapping a rich symbolic tradition with centuries of meaning, bringing it into the modern age. As much as we associate pillars with the classical temples of Greece and Rome, the concept of the pillars of creation – the very foundations that hold up the world and all that is in it – reverberates significantly in the Christian tradition. When William Jennings Bryan published The World's Famous Orations in 1906, he included an 1857 sermon by London pastor Charles Haddon Spurgeon titled "The Condescension of Christ". In it, Spurgeon uses the phrase to convey not only the physical world but also the force that keeps it all together, emanating from the divine: "And now wonder, ye angels," Spurgeon says of the birth of Christ, "the Infinite has become an infant; he, upon whose shoulders the universe doth hang, hangs at his mother's breast. he who created all things, and bears up the pillars of creation."
The pillars are composed of cool molecular hydrogen and dust that are being eroded by photoevaporation from the ultraviolet light of relatively close and hot stars. The leftmost pillar is about four light years in length. The finger-like protrusions at the top of the clouds are larger than our solar system, and are made visible by the shadows of evaporating gaseous globules (EGGs), which shield the gas behind them from intense UV flux. EGGs are themselves incubators of new stars. The stars then emerge from the EGGs, which then are evaporated.
Images taken with the Spitzer Space Telescope uncovered a cloud of hot dust in the vicinity of the Pillars of Creation that Nicolas Flagey accounted to be a shock wave produced by a supernova. The appearance of the cloud suggests the supernova shockwave would have destroyed the Pillars of Creation 6,000 years ago. Given the distance of roughly 7,000 light years to the Pillars of Creation, this would mean that they have actually already been destroyed, but because light travels at a finite speed, this destruction should be visible from Earth in about 1,000 years. However, this interpretation of the hot dust has been disputed by an astronomer uninvolved in the Spitzer observations, who argues that a supernova should have resulted in stronger radio and x-ray radiation than has been observed, and that winds from massive stars could instead have heated the dust. If this is the case, the Pillars of Creation will undergo a more gradual erosion.
Original Hubble Space Telescope photo
Hubble's photo of the pillars is composed of 32 different images from four separate cameras in the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 on board Hubble. The photograph was made with light emitted by different elements in the cloud and appears as a different color in the composite image: green for hydrogen, red for singly ionized sulfur and blue for double-ionized oxygen atoms.
The "stair-shaped" missing part of the picture at the top right corner originates from the fact that the camera for the top-right quadrant has a magnified view; when its images are scaled down to match the other three cameras, there is necessarily a gap in the rest of that quadrant. This effect is also present on other four-camera Hubble pictures, and can be displayed at any corner depending on how the image has been re-oriented for publication.
The Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 was replaced by the Wide Field Camera 3, and the former was taken back to Earth where it is displayed in a museum. It was replaced in 2009 as part of a Space Shuttle mission (STS-125).
In 2010 Herschel Space Observatory captured a new image of Pillars of Creation in far-infrared wavelengths, which allows astronomers to look inside the pillars and structures in the region, and come to a much fuller understanding of the creative and destructive forces inside the Eagle Nebula.
In celebration of the 25th anniversary since the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers assembled a larger and higher-resolution photograph of the Pillars of Creation which was unveiled in January 2015 at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle. The image was photographed by the Hubble Telescope's Wide Field Camera 3, installed in 2009, in visible light. An infrared image was also taken.
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- Embryonic Stars Emerge from Interstellar "Eggs", Hubble news release
- Best Hubble Space telescope images from Space.com. [archived copy]
- David H. Devorkin and Robert W. Smith. (2015). The Hubble Cosmos. National Geographic Magazine, page 67
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- "NOVA | Origins | The Pillars of Creation image 3". PBS. Retrieved 2012-02-13.
- "NOVA | Origins | The Pillars of Creation image 2". PBS. Retrieved 2012-02-13.
- "NOVA | Origins | The Pillars of Creation image 1". PBS. 1995-04-01. Retrieved 2012-02-13.
- for example, this image of Seyfert's Sextet has the effect at bottom-left corner
- "Revisiting the 'Pillars of Creation'". NASA. 2012-01-18. Retrieved 2012-01-20.
- "Hubble Goes High-Definition to Revisit Iconic 'Pillars of Creation'". NASA. 2015-01-05. Retrieved 2015-01-06.