One of the big blockbusters of the American Astronomical Society meeting was the Hubble 25th Anniversary image: a new magnificent shot of the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula. Seriously, look at it.
The new shot is a perfect sequel: everything that was great about the original, with more of everything. First off, the new shot is MUCH higher resolution, and covers a much larger area. I have no doubt the area of the new picture is because it’s a mosaic, but the resolution… well, that’s the technological improvement of the Wide Field Camera 3 over the Wide Field/Planetary Camera 2, and the new super-resolution image combination techniques that have been invented over the last 20 years (coming soon to a cell phone near you) (don’t say astronomy never did nothin’ for the peoples).
Within the image, there are a few changes you can see. I’ve overlaid the two and tried to line them up; there’s a little rotation left over so you have to look carefully. The biggest changes are in the top of the leftmost pillar, where a giant jet from a newly forming star has been shooting out material. It’s star formation while you watch! I also think I see a high proper motion star in the middle pillar… that I’m a bit less sure of. It’s not a known proper motion object.
News is also going around that the Pillars of Creation have already been destroyed- they’re 1000 years away from being wiped out by an expanding supernova shockwave, and since the nebula is 7000 light-years away, they must have been destroyed 6000 years ago.
That’s a difficult claim to track down. I’ve checked and the most official source I can find is a press release at… an American Astronomical Meeting, from 2007. Either it’s never been published (at least, not by the scientist quoted in the press release), or it was eventually determined that, as the other source in this article says, it’s not a supernova shockwave.
Either way, the Pillars probably do look very different “now”. The Pillars are gas and dust-rich zones of the Eagle Nebula that aren’t being blown away by the winds from the more massive stars off the the top of the image.
Why? Because there are extremely dense knots of gas and dust at the tips of each of the pillars; those knots are collapsing into stars – it’s not named the Pillars of Creation for nothing – and some of them are already pretty well finished, based on this infrared image that can see through the dust. There are dozens, if not hundreds of stars in the pillars. Some day soon their stellar winds will blow away all that gas, and potentially go on to blow away the other pillars in the picture.
Space is always changing.