NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); click to enlarge.

In 1995, the Hubble Telescope snapped a photo of a portion of the Eagle Nebula (M16) called "Pillars of Creation," three columns of cold gas illuminated by ultraviolet light emanating from young stars. According to Phil Plait at Slate's Bad Astronomy blog, "It was the first highly detailed look astronomers ever got into a star-forming region, and we immediately learned quite a bit about them."

The image quickly became iconic, appearing in movies and TV shows, on t-shirts and on a postal stamp. Now, in honor of the 25th anniversary of Hubble's launch (which is officially in April), the craft has photographed the Pillars again, this time in stunning, glorious high-definition (click on the image above to get a closer look; you can compare the two images here).

Astronomers assembled several Hubble shots, taken with its Wide Field Camera 3 in September 2014, to create the new photo of the Pillars, which are about 5 light years tall. "I'm impressed by how transitory these structures are," said Arizona State University in Tempe's Paul Scowen, who was co-leader of the original observations of the Eagle Nebula. "They are actively being ablated away before our very eyes. The ghostly bluish haze around the dense edges of the pillars is material getting heated up and evaporating away into space. We have caught these pillars at a very unique and short-lived moment in their evolution."

In addition to the above photo, which shows the Pillars in visible light, astronomers also snapped a pic of the formation in near-infrared—which penetrates most of the gas and dust to show the baby stars being formed in the nebula—creating the gorgeous and ghostly photo below.


NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); click to enlarge.

For more analysis of the images and what you can see in them, head over to Plait's post on Slate.