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updated 1/9/2007 4:01:33 PM ET 2007-01-09T21:01:33

They helped open the public's eyes to the wonders of space when they were first photographed in 1995, but a new study suggests the famous "Pillars of Creation" in the Eagle Nebula might have already been toppled long ago, and that what the Hubble Space Telescope actually captured was their ghost image.

A new picture of the Eagle Nebula shot by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope show the intact pillars next to a giant cloud of glowing dust scorched by the heat of a massive stellar explosion known as a supernova.

Astronomers think the supernova's shock wave knocked the pillars down about 6,000 years ago. But because light from that region of the sky takes 7,000 years to reach us, the majestic pillars will appear intact to observers on Earth for another 1,000 years or so.

The supernova blast is thought to have occurred between 6,000 and 9,000 years ago, so what astronomers see now is evidence of the blast just before its destructive shock wave reached the pillars.

Astronomers have long predicted that a supernova blast wave would destroy the famous pillars. One earlier study concluded that the pillars would be destroyed sometime within the next million years. About 20 stars in the region are ripe for exploding and it was only a matter of time before one exploded.

The new Spitzer image suggests one of the stellar time bombs has already detonated. Humans living 1,000 to 2,000 years ago might have noticed the supernova event that destroyed the pillars as an unusually bright star in the sky.

In an end befitting their name, however, astronomers think that gas and dust from the pillar's destruction will help give birth to a new generation of stars.

The study, led by Nicolas Flagey of the Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale in France, was presented in Seattle on Tuesday at the 209th meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

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