Hubble Revisits an Icon

Twenty years ago, the Hubble Space Telescope snapped one of its most iconic images ever. The three towering columns of gas bathed in the light of hot, young stars came to be called the Pillars of Creation — and they showed up on everything from t-shirts to coffee mugs to rugs. Now, to celebrate its 25th anniversary, Hubble has taken a new image of the well-known region in the Eagle Nebula, about 6,500 light-years away.

It’s even more glorious than the first.

Released today during the American Astronomical Society’s annual winter meeting, the new Hubble photo is sharper than the original (see full-size image here). It has a wider field of view, too, and reveals the tenuous base of the cold, gassy columns. Astronomers asked the telescope to shoot the same region in both visible and infrared light, which is relaying some interesting things about this place that’s come to be so familiar.

Hubble’s new view of the Eagle Nebula in both visible (left) and infrared (right). (NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team)

Infrared light can penetrate clouds of dust and gas that visible light cannot. So, when seen in the infrared, the pillars look like mere wisps set against a sea of countless stars.


But inside those 5-light-year-tall towers are newborn stars. The uppermost tips of the pillars, the light blue parts that look as though they’re riding atop a bubbling cosmic eruption, are being pummeled by violent stellar winds. Perhaps as evidence of this stellar battering, a tuft of gas near the top of the tallest pillar is flying away.


Nadia Drake is a science journalist who grew up thinking about cosmic questions and staring at Saturn through giant telescopes. This is her space to talk about space — from other worlds to exploding stars to the fabric of the universe.

Her work has also appeared in Science News, Nature, New Scientist, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and WIRED. She lives in beautiful, foggy San Francisco.

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