As discussed in a previous blog post, "Twenty-Five Years of Hubble," this year marks the silver anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope. We have plans for a full year of festivities and kicked it off by revisiting a legend.
One of our most famous images of all time is the 1995 view of three gaseous pillars in the Eagle Nebula nicknamed "The Pillars of Creation." The "creation" aspect derives from the fact that new stars are being born within the dark, dense clouds at the tops of the pillars. That greenish, irregularly shaped image (on the left in the montage image above) was taken with Hubble's Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 instrument that was installed during Servicing Mission 1 in 1993.
An updated insturment, Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), was installed as a replacement during Servicing Mission 4 in 2009. Our first press release of the 25th anniversary year was a remarkable new WFC3 view of the same region. This new image (center in the montage) has twice the resolution, about six times the sky coverage, and more than twenty times the pixels of the previous version. The broader context and innumerable fine details combine to make a compelling updated portrait.
Yet Hubble took it one step further. The greatly improved infrared-light sensitivity of WFC3 enabled a striking infrared image of the Eagle pillars (on the right in the montage). The longer wavelengths of infrared light can penetrate through much of the gas and dust clouds, bringing out both the nebula and a panoply of background stars in stark contrast. The pillars, seemingly solid dark columns in visible light, are revealed in infrared light as a combination of dense clouds and the shadows they cast.
The contrast between Hubble's two new views is best seen in a cross-fade between the visible-light and the infrared-light images. The animated GIF displayed above has both images cropped to the same region. One can instantly pick out the visible gas that disappears in the infrared, as well as the bright infrared stars that have no visible counterparts.
The pillars in the Eagle Nebula are the primary topic of this Hubble Hangout.
There are so many interesting details to discuss in these images that it would fill a bunch of blog posts. Instead, let me point you to a Hubble Hangout that I did with Tony Darnell in late January. We call this series of hangouts "News from Hubble and Across the Universe." Usually, we cover three or four stories, but this time we spent the entire hour examining and comparing the Eagle pillar images. Have a look, as there are some rather intriguing and beautiful features to explore.