They’ll all be gone in 3 million years, so enjoy them while you can. I’m talking about the “Pillars of Creation” — shown here in one of the Hubble Space Telescope’s most iconic images — that form part of the Eagle Nebula in the constellation Serpens.
Three giant columns of cold gas and dust form a fist of cosmic solidarity, thrust into the heavens in a show of defiance at their inevitable dissolution. Hot, young stars in the nearby cluster NGC 6611 give off scorching ultraviolet radiation and gusty stellar winds that have blown away less dense materials from their vicinity, carving what remains into striking fingerlike shapes.
The pillars are made of thicker, denser dust that resist the corrosive radiation and winds. That’s why they’re still around … for a time.
Recently, astronomers using the MUSE instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) produced the first three-dimensional view of the famous scene. The VLT comprises four separate telescopes, each with its own 322.8-inch (8.2-meter) mirror, while MUSE can precisely measure the rainbow spectrum of light of each pixel in the image sensor to create a 3D image.
MUSE has shown that the tip of the left pillar is facing us, atop a column that’s actually situated behind NGC 6611 unlike the other pillars. This tip is bearing the brunt of the radiation from the cluster’s stars, and as a result looks brighter to our eyes than the bottom left, middle and right pillars, whose tips are all pointed away from our view.
The Pillars of Creation in 3D
You’ll see in the video that the prong farthest to the right is closest, while the tall one with its top pointing in our direction is furthest. For reference, the tallest pillar measures about 4 light years from top to bottom or about twice the height of the rightmost pillar.
By measuring the Pillars of Creation’s rate of evaporation, MUSE has given astronomers a time frame for when the pillars will be no more. They shed about 70 times the mass of the Sun every million years or so. Based on the their present mass of about 200 times that of the Sun, they have an expected lifetime of about 3 million more years — an astronomical blink of the eye. Like many of the great columns that once housed the great palaces of Rome, they too will fall one day.