NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has captured many remarkable images of the universe over the past two decades since its launch in April 1990, but one particular photo stands out from the rest.
The photo was captured in 1995 and showed what became known as the Pillars of Creation. It featured three towering columns of gas bathing in the ultraviolet light emitted by a cluster of new stars in the Eagle Nebula, also known as M16, a region of gas and dust 6,500 light-years away where new stars are born.
The Pillars of Creation photo was so evocative that it became hugely popular -- appearing in movies and TV shows as well as mail stamps, t-shirts, mugs and pillows. Now, to celebrate its upcoming 25th anniversary later this year, Hubble is revisiting what has become an iconic part of the sky, giving astronomers a better and wider view of the region with its upgraded system.
The telescope also took photographs of the pillars in visible and near-infrared lights, which were unveiled at the 225th American Astronomical Society meeting, which is happening in Seattle, Wash. from Jan. 4 to 8.
The infrared image shows a less familiar view of the structures where newly formed stars can be seen, as the infrared light can penetrate through much of the obscuring dust and gas.
The image taken in visible light, on the other hand, vividly shows the three columns in the region that are actually swirls of dust and hydrogen gas, which gradually cools down.
Astronomer Paul Scowen from the Arizona State University, who co-led the original observations of the Hubble of M16, said that the pillars show a dynamic and active process. He explained that the gaseous pillars are being ionized. The process involved the atoms being stripped of electrons that are then heated up by radiation emitted by the massive stars.
When the astronomers compared the pictures that the space telescope took last year and in 1995, they noticed that a jet-like feature that looks like water streaming from the hose, has stretched another 60 billion miles at a speed of 450,000 miles per hour. The jet may have been ejected from a newly born star.
"What that means is when 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.