Tuesday, 14 July 2015

So Farewell Then 'Pillars of Creation'

A higher-resolution HST image of the Pillars of Creation, taken in 2014 as a tribute to the original photograph
Slightly sad news today that the iconic 'Pillars of Creation' are no more, blown away in a massive supernova explosion in the star nursery, the Eagle Nebula.

The 'Pillars of Creation', a formation of gas and dust first photographed in 1995 by the Hubble space telescope quickly became one of the top ten deep space images. They were so named because they are (or were) the early stages of star formation, being condensing gas and dust clouds which would normally collapse to form stars. The taller pillar is a mere five light-years tall.

The Eagle Nebula is 7,000 light-years from Earth which means that the image we see was as it was 7,000 years ago - a bit of a problem for creationists who like to imagine the Universe is only 6,000 years old.

This was discovered by a team from l'Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale, Orsay, France who used an infrared image of the region taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope, which revealed a hitherto unseen cloud of hot gas advancing on the pillars. They presented their findings last Thursday to a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle, Washington, USA.

The pillars are bathed in the blistering ultraviolet light from a grouping of young, massive stars located off the top of the image. Streamers of gas can be seen bleeding off the pillars as the intense radiation heats and evaporates it into space. Denser regions of the pillars are shadowing material beneath them from the powerful radiation. Stars are being born deep inside the pillars, which are made of cold hydrogen gas laced with dust. The pillars are part of a small region of the Eagle Nebula, a vast star-forming region 6,500 light-years from Earth. The colors in the image highlight emission from several chemical elements. Oxygen emission is blue, sulfur is orange, and hydrogen and nitrogen are green.

Eagle Nebula (Spitzer telescope) Inset: Hubble Pillars of Creation
Image: NASA/JPL/Caltech/IAS/SSC/N Flagey/A Noriega-Crespo
Source: New Scientist
The presence of heavier elements such as oxygen, sulphur and nitrogen show that these pillars were themselves formed from the remnants of first or second generation stars, showing that this region of space has been an active cauldron of star formation and destruction for many billions of years.

But don't be too upset by their passing. Although the pillars are probably gone by now, we're going to be able to see images like this for another 1,000 years because the supernova that destroyed it didn't hit it until about about 6,000 years ago and the light of that event won't reach us for another 1,000 years.

This illustrates the dynamic nature of the Universe and the chaotic nature of star formation. How many million potential suns and planets were there in that region and how many of those planetes had the potential for life to evolve? New gas clouds, new stars and new planets will form in due course as order inevitably emerges from this chaos under the influence of nothing more than gravity and the operation of physics and chemistry.

Scary thoughts there for creationists. Imagine having to ignore or dismiss all this information in order to pretend that Bronze-Age goat-herders from about 3000 years ago knew everything there is to know about the Universe, so you can pretend to know more than cosmologists do.

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