“Cluster Pillars of Creation”, Hubble Telescope, NASA, 1995

“Pillars of Creation,” a photograph of part of the Eagle Nebula, is one of the most iconic images taken by the Hubble telescope. But the Pillars have likely long since been torn apart by a distant explosion. The pictures we take today are high-tech and state-of-the-art, but the images are 7,000 years behind.

Circle of Life

The Eagle Nebula is an attractive cloud of gas. This gas clusters together, getting denser and denser, until it becomes spherical objects that turn hydrogen into

helium. We like to call these objects stars. But as they mature, these stars irradiate the region with ultraviolet light.

A gang of these young stars lives just above the Pillars. Their ultraviolet radiation burns the beautiful gas and carries away its electrons. Their winds crash into the Pillars and, like a sandstorm bearing down on a building, this process blurs the edges. Someday there will be nothing left to destroy. There won’t even be ruins.

But then the stars will die, turning into new nebulae, within which new stars will be born, which will then unfold and destroy the nebulae. This is what it means to be the universe.

Back to the Future.

The Pillars of Creation may have disappeared, and not just because of young ungrateful stars. About 6,000 years ago, a blast wave from a nearby supernova probably crashed into them, pulverizing and washing them away along with the young stars. But we can watch them fade and disappear until 3015 (give or take).

You see, the Pillars are 7,000 light years from Earth. The light we see from them — the light that Hubble Space Telescope scientists used to create the images — left the nebula around 5000 B.C., moved at the speed of light toward us, and arrived here 7,000 years later. So we see the nebula as it was 7,000 years ago.

And 7,000 years ago there was nothing wrong with the Pillars. But images taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope and released in 2007 seem to show their imminent demise.

Judging by the speed of the supernova blast wave, it crashed into the Pillars, possibly collapsing them, about 6,000 years ago. The Pillars of Creation, from which we continue to swoon, may no longer exist. We won’t know how much damage has been done until thousands of years later when the light from the collapse reaches us.

Alone in the trap of the present.

We have no way of seeing what the Pillars of Creation look like now, or anything in the universe. We see galaxies 3 billion light years away as they looked 3 billion years ago. We see the Sun as it looked 8.5 minutes ago. What’s more, what you see now is the past, so your brain predicts the present.