I remember being a kid of five or six years old in the mid-90s, sitting in a dentist’s waiting room, and marvelling at Hubble Space Telescope (HST) images published in a Time magazine. The one which I found most striking was captioned “Pillars of Creation”. I guess I didn’t have much idea what was going on in the iconic image - and I was definitely a little distracted by the imminent prospect of painful dental work - but I do remember my jaw dropping and me thinking: "WOW! What’s this!? It’s so beautiful!” And I remember that on a return visit to the dentist’s office I hunted out the same magazine and marvelled again at the Hubble images.
My dentist suggested I keep the magazine, which I did...I wonder what role seeing those marvellous images played in me deciding, many years later, to become an astrophysicist.
In any event, I was delighted to learn that NASA has recently used the HST to capture a bigger, sharper image of the so-called Pillars of Creation, in celebration of the space telescope’s 25th anniversary.
Being a little more knowledgeable than I was twenty years ago, I now know that the finger-like structures in the image form part of the Eagle Nebula - more than 6,500 light years away - and are composed of gas and dust. The biggest finger is about 30 trillion kilometres (4 light years) long! The structures are dubbed “Pillars of Creation” because the gas and dust are in the process of forming new stars - to be fair, though, they are also “Pillars of Destruction” because light from nearby stars is eroding the pillars themselves. Interesting to think that the environment that formed our own Sun and Solar System was probably very similar to the one captured in this photo.
Although NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has taken many breathtaking images of the universe, one snapshot stands out from the rest: the iconic view of the so-called “Pillars of Creation.” The jaw-dropping photo, taken in 1995, revealed never-before-seen details of three giant columns of cold gas bathed in the scorching ultraviolet light from a cluster of young, massive stars in a small region of the Eagle Nebula, or M16.