The Pillars Of Creation

The Pillars of Creation are among the most well-known objects in our galaxy. They were one of the most popular targets for the Hubble Space Telescope, with the first images taken shortly after Hubble’s launch in the 1990s. The Pillars themselves are actually a small section of the much larger Eagle Nebula, a star-forming region in the constellation Serpens around 7,000 light years away. The Pillars of Creation get their name from the fact that stars are forming within the Pillars. 

Characteristics Of The Pillars Of Creation

Pillars of Creation visible
Hubble revisited the Pillars of Creation in 2015 and took this updated, visible light image of the structure. Image credit: NASA/ESA

The Pillars of Creation are composed mostly of molecular hydrogen, the primary ingredient in star formation. Interestingly, the Pillars themselves are actually being eroded by the stars forming within them. The Pillars contain an abundance of young, high mass stars that emit vast amounts of ultraviolet radiation. This process of evaporation through light is called photoevaporation. Just from looking at the images of the Pillars, it is difficult to see just how large they are. The pillar on the far left is estimated to be four light years in length. If our sun were placed at the bottom of this pillar, the structure would almost stretch to the nearest star to our sun, Proxima Centauri

Do The Pillars Still Exist?

Pillars of Creation infrared
                   Image of the Pillars of Creation taken in infrared. Image credit: NASA/ESA

Since the Pillars of Creation are located 7,000 light years away, we see them as they were 7,000 years ago. The speed of light is the fastest known thing in the universe, yet that speed is still finite, and so it takes time for light from one destination to reach our eyes. Thus, some objects in space are so far away that, although we can see them, they may not actually exist anymore. This may be the case for the Pillars of Creation. Images from the Spitzer Space Telescope have revealed the shockwave from a nearby supernova that appears to be moving towards the Pillars. Based on the speed of the shockwave, astronomers estimate that it may have destroyed the Pillars of Creation 6,000 years ago, and so their destruction will be visible in about 1,000 years.