The first clear images of the stunning deep space phenomena Pillars of Creation were first captured by the Hubble Telescope over 25 years ago and have become some of the most iconic celestial pictures ever captured.
Now the high-tech James Webb Space Telescope has upped the jaw-dropping ante with fresh and incredibly detailed views of the pillars captured by its super-sharp Near-Infrared Camera.
The images are a glimpse into the ancient past due to how far the Pillars of Creation are from Earth, some 6,500 light-years (quick science fact: a light year is the distance traveled at the speed of light in one year, nearly 6 trillion miles.)
However, it’s a little disappointing to learn that some scientists believe we are observing a wonder that may have been wiped out thousands of years ago by an epic space cataclysm.
What are the Pillars of Creation made of?
The earliest Hubble pics of the Pillars of Creation made the formations look like looming rock towers, but they’re actually comprised of cool interstellar gas and dust, according to NASA, and are semi-permeable.
The Pillars are located at the heart of Messier 16, also known as the Eagle Nebula, which was first sighted in 1745 by the Swiss astronomer Jean-Philippe Loys de Chéseaux. While the Pillars of Creation are, themselves, massive structures that stretch 4 to 5 light years, they’re dwarfed by the Eagle Nebula, which occupies a space that is estimated at 70 light years by 55 light years.
The pillars are part of an active, star-forming region and NASA notes that those wavy lines that look like lava at the edges of some pillars are ejections from stars that are still forming within the gas and dust. Young stars periodically shoot out supersonic jets that collide with clouds of material, like these thick pillars.
Do the Pillars of Creation still exist?
NASA scientists say the Pillars of Creation are bathed in scorching ultraviolet light from a cluster of nearby young stars, and the winds from these stars are slowly eroding the towers of gas and dust.
Some scientists have theorized that a shock wave created by a star going supernova some 6,000 years ago may have erased the Pillars of Creation, and Earth-bound stargazers will only have another 500 years or so to observe the phenomena before they disappear. Other scientists dispute this claim and believe the pillars will (or did) erode more slowly.
In the meantime, NASA says the images being captured by Webb are helping researchers revamp their models of star formation by identifying far more precise counts of newly formed stars, along with the quantities of gas and dust in the region. Over time, NASA says, they will begin to build a clearer understanding of how stars form and burst out of these dusty clouds over millions of years.
What’s so great about infrared imaging?
While the Hubble Space Telescope “sees” objects in the optical and ultraviolet spectrums, with some limited infrared capabilities, the Webb telescope is optimized for looking at the universe via the infrared spectrum.
The Webb telescope also has a much larger mirror than the Hubble, which collects more light and is able to peer farther back in time than the Hubble is capable of doing.
Fun facts about NASA’s space telescopes
The $10 billion Webb telescope is an international collaboration that includes NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. It launched into space last Christmas atop a European Ariane 5 rocket and traveled to a position 1 million miles from home, where it is now orbiting the sun.
While the first Webb images were transmitted back to earth in July, where the data is picked up by ground-based antennas in Australia, California and Spain, the Hubble is still in operation and making observations from its position about 340 miles above earth.
Hubble launched in 1990 with an expected lifespan of about 15 years, but NASA scientists say it could continue operating until the late 2020s.