If you know one Hubble Space Telescope photo, you know the so-called "Pillars of Creation." The image shows one small part of the Eagle Nebula, which is a cluster of stars, surrounded by gas, located 6,500 light-years away from Earth. The pillars in the photo are made of gas and dust. Inside them, new stars are forming.
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It's an arresting image, but so are many others made from Hubble data. What makes "Pillars of Creation" the top icon? A combination of history and science made the difference.
When the Hubble Space Telescope launched, it had a flaw in its optical system that made it under-perform, by far, what it was designed to do. As the project had cost $1.5 billion to launch—and would cost billions more to maintain—the Hubble science team in the early 1990s was under intense pressure from the taxpayers and politicians who had supported it.
"Pillars of Creation" was published almost two years after astronauts flew to the Hubble to fix it. The photo and its press release became the opening chapter to Hubble's great comeback story. "It was probably the first Hubble image that struck a really highly resonant chord with the public," says Michael Shara, an astronomer who then worked for the Space Telescope Science Institute, which manages Hubble. "I think for the public, there was the realization that, 'Wow, Hubble really has been fixed' and 'Wow, look what Hubble can show us.'"
"There was the realization that, 'Wow, Hubble really has been fixed' and 'Wow, look what Hubble can show us.'"
The photo appeared on the front pages of newspapers, which had previously reported, of course, on Hubble's troubles.
Alongside the human drama, there was drama in the pillars' scientific significance. "There was a science story behind it that you could explain to Aunt Martha. It had to do with how we came into being," says Jeff Hester, one of the astronomers who put together the picture. Scientists think the Earth's sun formed in an environment like the pillars.
Finally, no one had ever seen or made anything like the "Pillars of Creation" before. A search through the Space Telescope Science Institute's press releases dating before 1995 shows plenty of bright pictures, but nothing of quite the landscape quality of "Pillars of Creation." The shadows of the pillars make them look three-dimensional. Their shape and framing evoke 19th-century landscape paintings, as art historian Elizabeth Kessler argues in her book, Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime.
They look at once like places you would want to visit, and impossibly greater than anything humans could ever get to, so you keep looking, and wishing. In the years after the photo's publication, the Hubble Heritage Project would form for the purpose of making attractive images from Hubble data. Now many landscape-like Hubble photos exist, but "Pillars" was the first.