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Pillars Of Creation May Be Gone In 'An Eye Blink In Cosmic Time'

This visualisation of the 3-D structure of the Pillars of Creation is based on new observations of the object using the MUSE instrument on ESO's Very Large Telescope in Chile. The pillars actually consist of several distinct pieces on either side of the star cluster NGC 6611. In this illustration, the relative distance between the pillars along the line of sight is not to scale.

The Pillars of Creation are arguably the most iconic image captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Here's what they look like — in images captured in 1995 and 2014.

The European Southern Observatory says its astronomers, using the MUSE instrument on the Very Large Telescope in Chile, have now produced the first 3-D view of the famous pillars. You can watch it here:

Among their major observations: the pillars will no longer exist in another 3 million years; and a previously unseen jet from a young star.

The pillars, along with a star cluster called NGC 611, are part of the Eagle Nebula, about 7,000 light-years away in the constellation of Serpens, and they are an example of the column-like shapes that develop in giant clouds of gas and dust when new stars are born. Here's how the European Southern Observatory describes the way such pillars are born:

"The columns arise when immense, freshly formed blue–white O and B stars give off intense ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds that blow away less dense materials from their vicinity.

"Denser pockets of gas and dust, however, can resist this erosion for longer. Behind such thicker dust pockets, material is shielded from the harsh, withering glare of O and B stars. This shielding creates dark 'tails' or 'elephant trunks', which we see as the dusky body of a pillar, that point away from the brilliant stars."

The new view of the Pillars of Creation shows not only their orientation, but their ongoing evaporation. Here's more:

"MUSE has shown that the tip of the left pillar is facing us, atop a pillar that is actually situated behind NGC 6611. ... This tip is bearing the brunt of the radiation from NGC 6611'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 new study also reports fresh evidence for two gestating stars in the left and middle pillars as well as a jet from a young star that had escaped attention up to now."

But intense radiation from stars are grinding away at the pillars — so the formation of more stars in such environments will be a race against time. The Pillars of Creation are shedding about 70 times the mass of the sun every million years or so. At that rate, scientists say, the pillars have an expected life of 3 million more years — what they call "an eye blink in cosmic time."

"It seems," the European Southern Observatory team said in a statement, "that an equally apt name for these iconic cosmic columns might be the Pillars of Destruction."

You can read the astronomers' full paper here.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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