The Hubble Space Telescope's greatest-hits images would easily fill a coffee-table book with spiraling galaxies, ghostly nebulae and eye-catching stars. If you had to choose a cover image, then it most likely would be the famous "Pillars of Creation," an image captured in 1995 showing massive columns of cold gas reaching upward in the M16 nebula, popularly known as the Eagle Nebula.
NASA notes how the original image captured the public's imagination, appearing on pillows, T-shirts and a postage stamp. It was the rock star of the Hubble image collection. Twenty years later, Hubble has revisited the stunning image and topped it with a fresh high-definition look at the columns in preparation for the space telescope's 25th anniversary in April.
The new image is a combination of near-infrared and visible light, which enhances the otherworldly look of the pillars. Newborn stars are revealed to be lurking inside. The pillars are located about 6,500 light-years away, which is not terribly far in space terms.
"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," says Paul Scowen of Arizona State University in Tempe. Scowen was one of the astronomers working on the original Eagle Nebula observations in 1995.
The 1995 image was not only a looker, it also sparked some fascinating scientific observations.
"There is the only one thing that can light up a neighborhood like this: massive stars kicking out enough horsepower in ultraviolet light to ionize the gas clouds and make them glow," says Scowen. "Nebulous star-forming regions like M16 are the interstellar neon signs that say, 'We just made a bunch of massive stars here.' This was the first time we had directly seen observational evidence that the erosionary process, not only the radiation but the mechanical stripping away of the gas from the columns, was actually being seen."
The new, sharper view of the pillars will help scientists continue their work in understanding how these features function and change over time. For the rest of us, it's a reminder that the wonders of the universe are alive and well and still able to take our breath away.