"Pillars of Creation" --An 'Illusion' Vaporized by a Supernova Explosion 6,000 Years Ago (Today's Most Popular)
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July 18, 2012

"Pillars of Creation" --An 'Illusion' Vaporized by a Supernova Explosion 6,000 Years Ago (Today's Most Popular)

 

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In early 2007, scientists using the Spitzer discovered evidence that potentially indicates the famed three Pillars of Creation photographed by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in 1995 in the Eagle Nebula were destroyed by a nearby supernova explosion about 6,000 years ago, but the light showing the new shape of the nebula will not reach Earth for another thousand years.

A striking image from Spitzer (below) shows the intact dust towers next to a giant cloud of hot dust thought to have been scorched by the blast of a star that exploded, or went supernova. Astronomers speculate that the supernova's shock wave could have already reached the dusty towers, causing them to topple about 6,000 years ago.

However, because light from this region takes 7,000 years to reach Earth, we won't be able to capture photos of the destruction for another millenium or so. Spitzer's view of the region shows the entire Eagle nebula, a vast and stormy community of stars set amid clouds and steep pillars made of gas and dust, including the three well-known "Pillars of Creation."

"I remember seeing a photograph of these pillars more than a decade ago and being inspired to become an astronomer," said Nicolas Flagey of The Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale in France. "Now, we have discovered something new about this region we thought we understood so well."

Astronomers have long predicted that a supernova blast wave would mean the end for the popular pillars. The region is littered with 20 or so stars ripe for exploding, so it was only a matter of time, they reasoned, before one would blow up.

The new Spitzer observations suggest one of these stellar time bombs has in fact already detonated, an event humans most likely witnessed 1,000 to 2,000 years ago as an unusually bright star in the sky. Whenever the mighty pillars are vaporized, gas and dust will be blown away, exposing newborn stars that were forming inside. A new generation of stars might also spring up from the dusty wreckage.

Spitzer is a space telescope that detects infrared, longer-wavelength light that our eyes cannot see. This allows the observatory to both see the dust and see through it, depending on which infrared wavelength is being observed.

In Spitzer's new look at the Eagle nebula, the three pillars appear small and ghostly transparent. They are colored green in this particular view. In the largest of the three columns, an embedded star is seen forming inside the tip. Above the pillars is the enormous cloud of hot dust, colored red in the picture, which astronomers think was seared by the blast wave of a supernova explosion.

Flagey and his team say evidence for this scenario comes from similarities observed between this hot dust and dust around known supernova remnants. The dust also appears to have a shell-like shape, implying that a supernova blast wave is traveling outward and sculpting it. The mysterious dust was first revealed in previous images from the European Space Agency's Infrared Space Observatory, but Spitzer's longer-wavelength infrared instrument was able to tentatively match the dust to a supernova event.

"Something else besides starlight is heating this dust," said Dr. Alberto Noriega-Crespo, Flagey's advisor at the Spitzer Science Center. "With Spitzer, we now have the missing long-wavelength infrared data that are giving us an answer."

 

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The Daily Galaxy via NASA/Spitzer For additional graphics and more information about Spitzer, visit http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI/Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale

Comments

probably the best astronomical image of all time

This article is confusing as it seems the wrong picture is posted.

"the three pillars appear small and ghostly transparent. They are colored green in this particular view. In the largest of the three columns, an embedded star is seen forming inside the tip. Above the pillars is the enormous cloud of hot dust, colored red in the picture,"

I believe the article refers to this picture:

http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/spitzer/multimedia/ssc2007-01b.html

not the one shown. Editor's Comment: Corrected and added. With thanks!

I wonder how many other iconic structures in space are also long dead. At a mere 500 light years, Betelgeuse could have gone supernova when the European powers were figuring out how to claim the Americas. Hopefully it did so we can see it before we die.

Your closer than I am. I've got some old literature that said approximately 500 light years. The official 'guess' is 643 light years. Apparently red giants are difficult to get good distances on.

"While an exact distance to Betelgeuse is difficult to assess (late stage red giants have tenuous outer envelopes, thwarting traditional attempts to measure distance accurately), our best estimate is that it is about 600 light-years from Earth."

http://space.about.com/b/2011/01/24/will-betelgeuse-go-supernova-in-2012.htm

OK - this article makes no sense. What is the evidence? That scientists are predicting (speculating?) a star went supernova? Let's put it this way - if the light showing how the pillars look today won't reach Earth for another thousand or so years, and light is the cosmic speed limit, then ANYTHING indicating an actual supernova will ALSO take another thousand years or so to get here.

So - the article is basically saying there's a star on the verge of supernova (we think) in a picture. And we have a probability model that suggests it may have gone supernova (plus or minus some error bar)... but we won't know for another millenium. And - lo! - if it has, QED. If not - we would still be in the speculation regime that the supernova may or may not have occurred.

Anybody see the parallels with the Quantum "cat in a box" logic? It could be supernova (dead) or not (live) at the same time...

@John , scientists are of the view that there is a possibility
of supernova explosion in Eagle nebula after studying the star there.There is nothing wrong in the analysis. Editor's Note: Thank you, Ramkamar.

@WeKnowNothing

The hypothetical supernova happened X years ago, where X is long enough that the light from the supernova itself has alredy reached us.

The physical shockwave is propegating through space much slower than the light, according to this article hitting the pillars 1-2k years after the actual supernova (still 5-6k years ago).

The hypothetical light showing the distruction of the pillars is on the way to us now, even though the supernova light got here millenia ago.

@Ramkumar

Finally, a description of what happened.

Can someone tell me where the supernova was in relation to the pillars (from our vantage point). Top, bottom, left, right, front, or behind the pillars.

I see a half circle to the left of the pillars. Is that the supernova shockwave?

One other thing. How long will the show go on. Once the light from the destruction begins, how long will it take for the shockwave to destroy the pillars. Since it is traveling much slower than light, I would think it would be visible for a long time.


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