I know science rarely has room for emotion, but this struck me as one of those cool/beautiful/sad stories that astronomy in particular seems to be full of. The famous stalks of interstellar gas and dust branching out from the Eagle Nebula, dubbed “The Pillars of Creation” after the above photo was shot of them by the Hubble telescope in 1995, may have actually been destroyed by a nearby supernova 6 millennia ago — but the light from (and therefore images of) their destruction won’t make it to us for another thousand years.
Scientists used the Spitzer Space Telescope to photograph the region back in early 2007. (The Spitzer captures infrared light that’s invisible to the human eye.) According to this excellent post on the subject over at the Daily Galaxy:
[The] three pillars appear small and ghostly transparent. They are colored green in this particular view. In the largest of the three columns, an embedded star is seen forming inside the tip. Above the pillars is the enormous cloud of hot dust, colored red in the picture, which astronomers think was seared by the blast wave of a supernova explosion.
Although astronomers had pegged the likelihood of this happening rather highly (the area is full of volatile stars), it wasn’t until the Spitzer images came in and were analyzed that they discovered it already had.
The supernova would have been witnessed 1000 to 2000 years ago, they say, by humans for whom it would have registered as an unusually bright star. It doesn’t seem probable that the event had been recorded, like SN 1054 in Chinese, Japanese, and Arab world sources at the time, so astronomers are continuing to rely on the information from Spitzer to decode exactly what went down.
Daily Galaxy quotes a scientist working on the project: “I remember seeing a photograph of these pillars more than a decade ago and being inspired to become an astronomer.” It’s amazing to think of the real, transitory nature of such an iconic phenomenon. The tradeoff of their destruction is a greater understanding of the heavens, though — and at least we have another thousand years to appreciate them, from our tiny vantage point from Earth.