Blast in the Past

If one wanted to take a picture of the Library of Alexandria or the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, that person would be denied the opportunity by a simple fact: both were destroyed hundreds of years ago. Absent a time machine, we can’t take a photograph of things destroyed in the past.

Except that we have.

The composite photograph above was taken on April 1, 1995 — and is not an April Fools’ joke, despite the fact that what is pictured no longer exists.

The image is of the “Pillars of Creation,” a group of formations of interstellar gas and dust each of which are a few light years in length. The image is a composite made from 32 photographs from four different cameras on the Hubble Space Telescope focused on the Eagle Nebula; an image of the Pillars in context of a subsection of the Nebula can be found here. (One of the cameras has a magnified view of the Pillars, which, when scaled down to match the images from the other three, leaves a blank area in the upper right.) Astronomers believe that new stars are forming within the Pillars.

Or, rather, once formed there.

Astronomers further believe that a shockwave from a supernova destroyed the Pillars roughly 6,000 years ago. But because the Eagle Nebula is 6,500 to 7,000 light years away, every image we have of the area is that many years in the past. So while the Pillars are long gone, we have not yet seen their destruction — and won’t for another millennium, give or take a century or two. So if you’re around in 3012 or so, be sure to look out of the window of your low Earth orbit apartment.

Bonus factAccording to the Hubble Site, the Hubble Space Telescope’s main mirror is so smooth that, if its diameter were expanded to match that of the Earth’s, the tallest bump would be only six inches high.

From the ArchivesThe Isolated Tree: Features a picture of a tree which has been destroyed — in the strangest of ways.

Related: “Hubble: Imaging Space and Time,” a National Geographic book by David Devorkin and Robert Smith. Five stars on average, a rarity, especially given that it has 24 reviews.

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