The Pillars of Creation Will Disappear in a Cosmic Blink

By Maddie Stone on at

One way or another, the Pillars of Creation are toast. Based on new observations at the European Southern Observatory, these awe-inspiring structures have another three million years before their ghostly image fizzles away into cosmic nothingness.

That’s a maximum lifespan for the pillars, because there’s a good chance they were already destroyed, over a thousand years ago.

Top image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

First captured by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995, the Eagle Nebula’s Pillars of Creation, star factories enshrouded in clouds of hydrogen gas and dust, are unadulterated cosmic glory. As new stars flicker to life, the dusty entrails of their birth feed the billowing pillars. But the same celestial bodies that gave these incredible landscapes shape are also tearing them down.

That’s because the powerful radiation and stellar winds of star formation are grinding the Pillars away, according to a new study which used ESO’s MUSE instrument on the Very Large Telescope to illustrate the evaporation and 3D-orientation of the cosmic structures in unprecedented detail. MUSE now finds that the Pillars of Creation are shedding roughly 70 times the mass of our Sun every million or so years. Based on their estimated mass of 200 Suns, it’s now clear that the pillars have a couple of million years left at the outset.

That is, if they weren’t already killed by a neighbouring supernova some 6,000 years ago. If, as scientists suspect, that supernova’s shockwave did obliterate the pillars, we won’t know it for another 1,000 years, when the brilliant light show of their destruction reaches our eyes. Whether these magnificent structures are already gone, or will be in a cosmic blink, their fate reminds us just how limited our perception of reality is. At this singular moment in time, the pillars appear to our eyes, in our tiny corner of space, as enduring symbols of creation. But with their death already written in the sky, we could just as easily call them portends of destruction. How we choose to label them has more to do with the ephemeral nature of our own existence than the ever-shifting reality of the cosmic landscape. [ESO]

Read the open access scientific paper on the death of the Pillars here.