Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Speaking of Science: A pillar of the cosmic community

Speaking of Science
Talk nerdy to us

In 2014 astronomers, using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope assembled a bigger and sharper photograph of the iconic Eagle Nebula's "Pillars of Creation" (right); the original 1995 Hubble image is shown at left. (NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team [STScI/AURA]/P. Scowen Hester [ASU])

As we age, so does the Hubble Telescope. The telescope, which NASA launched into space aboard the shuttle Discovery in 1990, is nearing the end of a long career, Post reporter Sarah Kaplan wrote this week, crippled by a gyroscope failure.

Hubble has made more than a million observations and, by 2014, generated 800 gigabytes of data every month. The telescope may be one of the most successful, and most influential, astronomical instruments humans created. Which makes choosing a favorite Hubble observation a bit tricky. Astronomer and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, when asked this question in 2015, told the New York Times it was "like picking your favorite child."

But, if push came to shove, I'd go with the Pillars of Creation, a gas formation 6,500 light-years away in the Eagle Nebula. The Pillars of Creation, which looks in Hubble images like the fingers of a titanic hand rising out of space, is a swirl of dust and molecular hydrogen gas. Each column is 6 trillion miles in length, where, at the densest points, new suns coalesce into being. Those swirls are the signposts of a star nursery.


Hubble took the first image of the Pillars of Creation in 1995 and again in 2014. Of the images, Jennifer Wiseman, a Hubble scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, told Nature: "You see the columns of gas that signify a region where stars have recently formed and are still forming. We have a marvelous newer image with a newer camera, which gave us a visual clue as to how young stars that have recently formed are interacting with the dense gas remaining behind."


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