Twenty years after debuting what became one of the most iconic astronomical photographs of the late 20th century, NASA has unveiled an even more glorious image of the Eagle Nebula.
The new bigger and sharper version of the "Pillars of Creation" photo was released Monday as part of the lead up to the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope's launch, and reveals new information on the three massive columns of gas in the nebula, also known as M16, that have caught the attention of astronomers since they were first captured by Hubble in 1995.
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Their majestic glow, which comes from a nearby young star cluster, becomes even more astounding when their size is taken into account. The pillars shown in the image are 5 light-years tall, which means that the distance from one end to the other is roughly 300,000 times as far away as Earth is from the sun.
The original version of picture of the small section of M16, taken by Jeff Hester and Paul Scowen, earned the nickname "Pillars of Creation" because the columns of gas hold a sort of star nursery, with stars being born deep in their interior, but Scowen explained to NASA that the new image suggests a destructive nature as well.
"I'm impressed by how transitory these structures are. They are actively being ablated away before our very eyes," Scowen said of the new version of the image, taken 19 years later. "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."
While the pillars of M16 are more than 6,500 light-years from us, they provide a picture of what our own star's birth probably looked like.
"[W]hen you look at the environment of the Eagle Nebula or other star-forming regions, you're looking at exactly the kind of nascent environment that our sun formed in," Scowen said.