Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Dust to dust

In my last Visible Universe column, I wrote that the Horsehead nebula can be a scientific downer for stargazers who believe the famous Hubble image is just what they would see with their own two eyes.

Now, I'm sad to say, the news may be even worse for fans of this celebrity nebula. The iconic Pillars of Creation tucked inside the nebula have been destroyed. According to Nicolas Flagey of The Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale in France (a visiting graduate student at NASA's Spitzer Science Center at Caltech), the pillars were toppled 6,000 years ago by a supernova blast. We won't see the pillars go down for another millennium or so, but light from the nebula is well on its way to our telescopes, carrying all the gory details of the pillar's last stand.

Flagey, apparently not wanting to go down in history as a spoilsport, told NASA:

"I remember seeing a photograph of these pillars more than a decade ago and being inspired to become an astronomer....Now, we have discovered something new about this region we thought we understood so well."

Pretty cold comfort. But physics is indifferent to beauty. As they say, physics giveth and physics taketh away.