The “Pillars of Creation” Have Been, Are Being, and Will Be Destroyed

By Sarah Scoles | January 6, 2015 12:00 pm

pillars of creation

The “Pillars of Creation,” a photograph of part of the Eagle Nebula, is one of the most iconic images ever taken by the Hubble telescope. Yesterday, astronomers released a bigger, better, sharper version of the pillars, taken almost two decades after the first.

But an ironic twist – and what we didn’t know twenty years ago – is that the Pillars might have been long ago torn apart by a distant explosion. The photos we snap of them today are high-tech and modern but their subject is clouded by thousands of light-years of remove. Like the post-mortem photography of the Victorian era, the resulting images are lifelike, and beautiful, and sad.

Circle of Life

The Eagle Nebula is an attractive cloud of gas. This gas groups itself together, becoming denser and denser until it clumps into spherical objects that turn hydrogen into helium. We like to call them stars. But as these stars grow up, they irradiate the region with ultraviolet light.

A gang of these young stars lives just above the Pillars. Their UV radiation bakes the beautiful gas and strips its electrons away. Their winds, made of high-energy particles, slam into the Pillars. And like a sandstorm battering a building, this process erodes the edges. Someday, there will be nothing left to erode. Even the ruins will be gone.

It’s tragic. A nebula births and nurtures stars. Then stars turn around and demolish the nebula, steadily deforming it as they wear it down and down and down. The nebula will die, and the stars will beat on.

But then the stars will die, exploding into new nebulae, inside of which new stars will gestate, which will then turn around and demolish the nebulae. This is what it means to be a universe.


The original 1995 photo of the Pillars, left, and the 2014 update, right. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)/J. Hester, P. Scowen (Arizona State U.)

Back to the Future

But the Pillars may be gone already, and not just because of young, ungrateful stars. Around 6,000 years ago, a blast wave from a nearby supernova likely crashed into them, grinding them down and washing them away in concert with the young stars.

But we won’t be able to watch them dim and disappear until the year 3015 (give or take).

You see, the Pillars live 7,000 light-years away from Earth. The light we see from them — the light that Hubble Space Telescope scientists used to make the new image — departed from the nebula in the year 4985 B.C.E., traveled at the speed of light toward us, and arrived here 7,000 years later. We thus see the nebula as it looked 7,000 years ago.

And 7,000 years ago, the Pillars were fine. But images taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope, and released in 2007, appear to show their imminent demise. Almost off-screen, a wavefront from a supernova explosion is stopped in still-frame, screaming along a path straight toward the Pillars. The image is like a horror movie scene in which the protagonist doesn’t know the killer is in the house, but you do. “He’s right behind you!” you yell at the screen. But it doesn’t do any good.

The infrared image captured by the Spitzer telescope. Red represents hotter dust, and the Pillars are outlined and inset.

The infrared image captured by the Spitzer telescope. Red represents hotter dust, and the Pillars are outlined and inset. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale

Based on the blast wave’s speed, it crashed into the Pillars, perhaps toppling them, around 6,000 years ago. The Pillars of Creation, which we continue to swoon over, might not even exist anymore.

We won’t know how much damage was done until 1,000 years from now, when the light from the crash finally reaches us.

Trapped Alone in the Present

There is no way for us to see what the Pillars of Creation — or anything in the universe — look like now. We see galaxies 3 billion light-years away as they looked 3 billion years ago. We see the Sun as it looked 8.5 minutes ago. If you were standing one foot in front of me, I would see you as you looked 1.01670336 nanoseconds ago, which is the time it would take for the light to reflect from your face to my pupil. While our brains live in their present, we see everything else in its past tense.

In the case of the Pillars of Creation, then, we’re lucky to have caught in this part of its history. These are good years, the kind whose photo albums you want to page through. But even the brand-new additions are faded with age.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, Top Posts
  • Jim LeSire

    Silly melodrama. For all you know, the remains may be much more beautiful than the pillars we see today.

    • stevedodge833

      Even more silly. Of course, they don’t even look as good as they appear in the photos. Astronomical images like this are colorized, to show various gases and elements, the hues chosen by the “artist”. A personal view of the pillars from a nearby position would be much more bland.

      • Jim LeSire

        Very true. Perhaps we should all wear “Photoshop glasses.” Somebody should invent them.

        • SailorDon01 .

          “Kodachrome glasses” :-)

          • NigNogGoliwog

            Ahhh Kodachrome… do they even make that anymore? You cant replicate kodachrome

          • Blue Drache

            I believe that Kodak no longer makes print film for the consumer market. I could be wrong though.

          • Harry Dean Stockwell

            Growing up in my grandfather’s camera store taught me that the -chrome files (‘Koda’ and “Ekta’) were slide films, not print films. Their color print film stock ended in ‘-color’. (B/W used a bunch of different naming schemes)

          • reed1v

            I use to use panatomic X, best 35mm black and white film around. Extreme fine grain, ultra slow film. When Kodak ended production, most of the pros bought up whatever supplies of the stuff were left. Not as good as a large format camera’s results but real close.

          • Harry Dean Stockwell

            Yep, when I started using the darkroom, I used a bunch of Pan-X (my dad never sprung for the color head on our enlarger). My grandfather also liked that I enjoyed goofing around with Kodak’s B&W Infrared film, because no one wanted to buy it.

          • reed1v

            Never could figure out what to do with the infrared stuff. Pan-x was great for getting shades just right, also for enlarging to whatever size needed. Once got a grasshopper on a stadium bleacher to sit still while i photographed him/her about 80 feet away. Enlarged from a portrait lense(90mm nikon) to fit a 5×8 frame, just its head. Perfection in the dark.

          • Harry Dean Stockwell

            I never figured it out either, but as a teenager I enjoyed the creepiness of the images it captured. I never got serious about photography, so the family is happy to see that my teenage daughter is becoming enthusiastic. Took a trip with my dad and her to B&H’s showroom in NY and blew her mind a little bit.

          • reed1v

            Some time ago, had a box of old 3×5 transparencies mounted between glass plates made way back in the 1890s. One was of paddle steamers unloading cotton somewhere in the deep south. Picture was taken from some distance away on a hill top so the negative initially looked like a typical landscape photo. Put it under a low powered microscope and zoomed down to the point where each person’s face was clear and distinct as they sat on the side railings of the boats. Thus going from about a quarter mile away down to two feet away. Amazing grain and texture.

          • Chris Addison

            Momma don’t take my kodachrome away.

          • Kathleen8523

            Fill up your Pay-Pal with money quickly by doing a simple online job… See more…

      • Section8

        Not anymore man. They have a new filter system which when they run them together, they get the proper colors of the universe. Take a look at Nasa’s ne photos lately.

        • Jamie Gairns

          Colours occur in the visible spectrum, so there is no “proper” colour with respect to infrared, X-ray, radio waves, microwaves, etc. They are false colour composites specifically meant to capture details in each of the imaging bands.

      • Sean Mathews

        Indeed. As an Astrophotographer, I know this. The hubble palette is often replicated, but the colors are false. As mentioned, colors are assigned to OIII and other wave lengths.

      • Sam

        Oh how wrong you are.. if anyone was lucky enough to glimpse upon something so out of this world they would be struck with nothing but awe….

    • Aru S.

      The remains probably look like dispersed dense gases with no specific formation.
      What’s more, it’s quite likely that the radiation from the supernova has vapourised most of the constituents of the nebulae, so they don’t even have a shape anymore.

    • dwb1957

      I’d believe the scientists over an internet snark.

    • David

      This is like saying the Jesus in my grilled cheese sandwich was “destroyed” when I ate it.

      • carol12598

        If you are looking for extra cash from $50-$300 a day for doing easy jobs from your couch at home for 3-4 hrs daily then try this…

        • Jason Schaffer

          Go SPAM somewhere else, dipshit

      • macb423

        Ohh, what a Debbie (David) Downer!

      • Evan Ocho

        the jesus in your grilled cheese is the only jesus that ever existed.

        • David Von Raesfeld

          You know Jesus was a real human being, right? His life has been catalogued, not only in Christian religion, but throughout other religions, (Judaism obviously, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and a lot more) And it’s not religions that “believe” he existed. He has been documented to have lived.

          Whether or not he is the son of God, or a prophet sent from God, or just some common man walking around thinking he was special, when he really wasn’t, is totally irrelevant.

          You said the Jesus in the guys grilled cheese is the only Jesus that existed. That’s simply not true.

          • assensio

            Yeah I saw Jesus outside my house the other day, he was mowing my lawn.

    • wilder5121

      What does it matter? The author was merely using a device to show the immense scale of time and space. The scale is SO vast, virtually nothing we can see out there in our universe is still there. That’s called physics. Someday our planet will cease to exist and nothing will ever know it ever existed, if there were anything out there that COULD know.


    If our system was inside one of these ‘pillars’ what would our view be like?

  • Idontknowanymore

    Fantastic article we observe a self renewing universe, where time is but perspective and the concept of death becomes the beauty of change as if the live stroke of a brush.

  • George Terrett

    Since the word ‘icon’ means image, what does ‘one of the most iconic images’ mean? Could you please indicate some of the other most iconic images?

    • Beckett Phil

      Since the word Pedant means ass-wipe, what does ‘one of the most pedantic ass-wipes’ mean?

    • P_E

      But since it also means “widely recognized and well-established” could you please give one reason for why your definition of choice is the intended one?

  • BigRedTexan

    haahaha bs!

    • Steven Borthick

      ? What’s BS? Can you please specify?

      • decemberx

        Texas. Science denier. Probably a Teddy C fan boy.

        • Steven Borthick

          What? No, I’m a Green Party/Democrat fan of Bernie Sanders. And I’m not a Science denier. After looking into much of it, I accept the Big Bang as having most likely happened, and consider the evidence for evolution as indisputable, to anyone with a working brain.

          So what on Earth are you going on about, seriously? I’m not insulting you, I’m just trying to figure out wtf you’re even talking about.

          • Asfalt0

            I think decemberx was not referring to you, but to the deleted comment before you..

          • Steven Borthick

            It was his own comment that he (or someone) deleted.

          • Shanna Belle Borthick-Compton

            Interesting. We are somehow related, even if it’s quite distantly- and we both found and read this. Maybe our bloodline is drawn to the cosmos.

          • Steven Borthick

            Hahahaha… I didn’t understand what you meant, until I looked back at your name. “Qui conducit.”

          • Shanna Belle Borthick-Compton

            I saw it shared on Facebook by an unrelated acquaintance. I actually only know of my father and my aunt that remain living of our Borthick side. I never met any cousins, and only one great aunt- and she was my grandmother’s sister- so not a Borthick.

  • Caseas

    < ?????? +dilbert +*********…..


  • Mitchell Taco Nash

    “We see galaxies 3 billion light-years away as they looked 3 billion years ago.”

    At this distance I feel like the expansion of the universe starts to play a role as so that galaxy would be further away than 3 billion light-years now.

  • Jens

    Does anyone know the size of this structure? What would for example be the distance of the tips of the first to columns? More like an AU or more like a lightyear? I have no conception of this whatsoever :)

    • That L Chap

      Several light years, at least. I think the longest pillar is about 4 light years from top to bottom. So if you were in the middle of it, it would most likely look like just more space.

  • sd

    The universe giveth and the universe taketh away. Chaos is inevitable. But still, as long as it lasts, it’s still so beautiful :)

  • Kev Belgium

    I dont understand why the stars are still the same from 1995 to 2014 just the cloud is denser, can somebody explain me more about that?

    • tralf

      In a nutshell, the solar winds from the young stars have altered the pillars. The winds in turn made the “visible” (see above comments re: visible wavelengths) nebula components far less dense.

      Clearly the stars themselves are far enough apart from each other so that they don’t have enough major gravitational effects on one another, so that is why they appear in the same positions, relatively speaking.

    • Bruce Johnson

      From 1995 to 2014 there would be no perceivable change in the formation. Any difference you see is due to either a more refined photograph or a difference in the way the false color and / or contrast was applied.

      • David Von Raesfeld

        That depends on if something happened 7,000 years ago to this date. Then you would see a difference, because the light from whatever could have happened would just be hitting us now. And I’m sure from 1995 to 2004 there would have been some activity. Likely not much at all. But those changes could be observed. Say if the dust clouds shifted a little, or a star exploded. If it happened 7,000 years before 1995 (the day after the original photo was taken) – 2017, you would be able to see the change today, when comparing pictures to the original photo taken in 1995.

  • CarlMN

    Oh how the infotainment industry likes to try to entertain us. Plain, old information is never good enough. So … a few facts stirred in with some speculation and a really generous helping of drama, all while leaving out many facts that would be really interesting if written up well for general consumption. It’s really hard to get well fed these days.

  • Azman Abdula

    Pillars of destruction : D

  • Gary

    I believe it’s rather childish to assert an argument when color assignments,no matter how imaginative they may be,when they’re only contrived for the purpose of perceptual purposes and even more………those colours may inspire the next generation of astrophysicist (and photographers lol).If the negative comments some of you left reflect anything I wouldn’t need Hubble to see your tiny,insecure egos making a vain,destructive attempt to make yourselves look intelligent.So wake up.

    • Lorry

      Thank you. And indeed, humans don’t seem to have evolved much since those images were created.

  • Don Crawford

    Where science goes astray is in their interpretations of what they see. Since they have long conditioned minds they have to interpret things materialistically; thus erroneously.

  • Mark Mawson

    Pillars of creation are actually vast clouds of cosmic dust, which from our earthly perspective may or may not have disappeared a very long time ago. The airbrushing has enhanced the imagery and the melodramatic narrative compliment them well……

  • Friz Martin

    Kind of surreal the fact that everything we see and sense is in the past tense. Nothing we observe is actually in the present. The closest we can get to seeing things as they are at present are the little floaters in the eyeball’s vitreous(?) chamber.

  • alex5503

    ”We see galaxies 3 billion light-years away as they looked 3 billion years ago” seems wrong to me since the universe has expanded all this time. I mean, that galaxies should be much more distant now than just 3 billion light-years if took light 3 billion years to travel the distance they were that time.

    • David Von Raesfeld

      But we are seeing the light they were emitting 3 billion years ago. If they have moved so far away, we have not been able to detect that light, because it has not reached earth yet.

      If a galaxy emitting light is 3 billion years away, and we are just receiving the light today, there is no way to see it as it is at the current moment. Sure it could be a lot further away. But since that light hasn’t reached us yet, there’s no way to see if it moved at all.

    • Paul Mellor Jr.

      The light waves gets “stretched” with the rest of the universe as it expands. This is why the visible light waves are more red shifted the farther away something is. Eventually things are so red shifted that they can’t be seen in the visible spectrum any longer and are “stretched” into infrared light waves..and then eventually into microwaves. This is the reason NASA is launching the James Webb telescope, the “new hubble”, to observe the distant edges of the observable universe in the infrared and microwave light spectrums. Specifically, to study the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation.

      -Erik M. Leitch of the University of Chicago explains.
      The Cosmic Microwave Background radiation, or CMB for short, is a faint glow of light that fills the universe, falling on Earth from every direction with nearly uniform intensity. It is the residual heat of creation–the afterglow of the big bang–streaming through space these last 14 billion years like the heat from a sun-warmed rock, reradiated at night.

      Since the early twentieth century, two concepts have transformed the way astronomers think about observing the universe. The first is that it is fantastically large; the portion of the universe visible today is a sphere nearly 15 billion light-years in radius, and that, we believe, is just the tip of the iceberg. The second is that light travels at a fixed speed. A simple consequence of these ideas is that as you look at more and more distant objects, you’re seeing farther and farther back in time–sometimes very far back indeed. When you see Jupiter shining in the night sky, for example, you’re looking about an hour back in time, whereas the light from distant galaxies captured by telescopes today was emitted millions of years ago.

      The CMB is the oldest light we can see–the farthest back both in time and space that we can look. This light set out on its journey more than 14 billion years ago, long before the Earth or even our galaxy existed. It is a relic of the universe’s infancy, a time when it was not the cold dark place it is now, but was instead a firestorm of radiation and elementary particles. The familiar objects that surround us today–stars, planets, galaxies and the like–eventually coalesced from these particles as the universe expanded and cooled.
      This residual radiation is critical to the study of cosmology because it bears on it the fossil imprint of those particles, a pattern of miniscule intensity variations from which we can decipher the vital statistics of the universe, like identifying a suspect from his fingerprint.

      When this cosmic background light was released billions of years ago, it was as hot and bright as the surface of a star. The expansion of the universe, however, has stretched space by a factor of a thousand since then. The wavelength of the light has stretched with it into the microwave part of the electromagnetic spectrum, and the CMB has cooled to its present-day temperature, something the glorified thermometers known as radio telescopes register at about 2.73 degrees above absolute zero.

  • illiad

    Yeah, How about doing ‘confuse your friend;??? 😛
    Just show him a picture of a sunset.. then ask him where the sun is!!
    to his answer , say Wrong!! it’s not there!!! LOLOLOL

    It takes light 8 mins to get here, so the sun has actually ‘set’ 8 minutes before the picture…

    • goldenmug

      Not really. “Sunset” is not something that happens to the sun – it’s not moving, the earth is. So when the sun “sets” it means that the earth has rotated enough to hide the sun from your particular viewpoint.

      What is true is that whenever you look at the sun (which you shouldn’t do with the naked eye – you really can damage your eyesight that way) what you see is the sun as it was 8 minutes ago.

      When you look at the Moon, you are looking at a much closer object (quarter of a million miles – IIRC) but the light bouncing off the Moon takes just over a second to get here, so our picture of the Moon is always a second out of date. Our information from the spacecraft which flew past Pluto took 4.5 hours to get here, mostly travelling at the speed of light.

    • Sunil Garg

      hahah!!! you nailed it

  • GregR

    I can NOT find a version of this for sale.
    Anyone help?

  • John

    Enjoy life, it is all that is worth living.

  • Alex Rose

    6 months late to this, sorry, but we’re talking about the image of something.

    An image isn’t relativistic, it’s photons, they’re moving at exactly the speed of light by definition, and they’re not bending spacetime to do so because they’re massless. If you drew a box around us and that galaxy, that is our frame of reference. It’s completely pointless to talk about relativity here.

  • Abelardo Samuel Márquez Gonzál

    Seems to me, the writer has never heard of the phrase “Looking into space is to look into the past”. I agree, silly melodrama.

  • thinkdunson

    stick to the story, discomag. this dramatic bs is not why i come here.

  • James McGill

    That is not how it works. We measure space time according to a frame of reference. There is no absolute frame of reference in the universe, so we measure space time from our own reference.

  • John

    Simultaneity does not mean that there is no sense of chronological order. In fact, when it comes to non-moving objects, relativity doesn’t come into play at all. Relativity would apply, for example, to a spaceship moving rapidly from the pillars to the earth. An earth observer and an observer on the ship would say that different amounts of time had passed since the pillars were destroyed. But assuming that the pillars are not moving too quickly relative to us, any earth observer and any observer on the pillars would agree as to when they were destroyed.

  • John Paul Bowie Fries my brain, like, If I run fast enough would i catch myself up and see my own back, aarr its sunday morning i should go and lay down…


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