If you live anywhere with light pollution, you probably get a pretty diluted view of the night sky’s glory. And sometimes, in the busyness of life, we simply forget to look up. These photographers, winners of the 2021 Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition run by Royal Observatory Greenwich, have used their considerable skills to showcase the wonders of our local universe in gorgeous detail. Of the over 4,500 entries submitted in the contest, the following images are the winners for each category.
The Sun (and Overall Winner)
This competition-winning photograph of the Sun is mostly a shot of the Moon. Photographer Shuchang Dong captured the Sun as it appeared with the lunar interloper in front of it, rendering our local star as just an ethereal ring during an annular solar eclipse on June 21, 2020.
Dong went to Ali, a high-altitude, low-population region of Tibet, to take the photo. The weather there is usually sunny year-round, with the exception of the day Dong took the photo, when it was cloudy. With less than a minute to spare before the eclipse, though, there was a parting in the clouds, according to a Royal Observatory Greenwich release.
On November 30, 2020, Dmitrii Rybalka was on a ship approaching the Kara Strait, a waterway that connects the Barents and Kara Seas north of Russia. In the distance, Rybalka saw a whitish band in the sky and went to grab his camera. When he got back a few minutes later, the sky was awash in meandering lines of green light: the aurora borealis.
Aurorae happen when the solar wind collides with Earth’s atmosphere, exciting the molecules and giving off colour. Different gases in the atmosphere emit different types of visible light; oxygen gives off the iconic green shade associated with aurorae. EarthSky has a great explainer on the science of aurorae.
This curvaceous shot of the Milky Way is a panoramic image of our galaxy that took two years to complete. It won the — go figure — Galaxies category of the competition. The image shows all parts of the Milky Way that are visible from Earth and was put together from images taken in China (in Sichuan and Qinghai) and New Zealand (Lake Pukaki) to capture elements of the galaxy exclusively visible to the northern and southern hemispheres, respectively.
Fashioned in a ring, the galaxy echoes the overall winning image of the annular eclipse. At the top of the ring is the galactic bulge, the concentration of cosmic structures at the centre of the galaxy. From Earth, the bulge is seen in a cross-section (as we, obviously, are in the galaxy ourselves). Jupiter is also visible, above that bulge and to the left of the red giant star Antares. Besides the bulge, the constellation Orion and the Magellanic clouds are visible on the lower half of the image. Seeing our galaxy in a ring shape warps our typical view of the night sky, from a tableau of what’s right in front of us into a more totallising view of our residency in the cosmos. If the solar system is our street, the Milky Way is our entire city.
This photograph is evocative of the iconic Earthrise, but it’s a redux of that photograph: Instead of Earth rising over an astronaut on the Moon, it’s Venus behind the Moon, taken by a viewer on Earth in June 2020. Venus is a wafer-thin crescent, as the Moon’s shadow conceals most of the planet. Taken in Forges-les-Bains, France, the photo is a different look at the familiar sight of the lunar surface, one that removes Earth from the conversation entirely.
“This is how the Solar System might look to a space traveller,” said competition judge László Francsics, an astrophotographer and the Chairman of the Hungarian Astrophotographers’ Association, in a Royal Observatory Greenwich release. “Cosmic distance and celestial objects can be seen from a new perspective in one single image.” Indeed, it’s the sort of photograph that makes you say “wait, what?” as your mind wraps around where the photographer was and exactly what’s captured in the picture.
People and Space
Sorry to disrupt your nice vacation across the cosmos, but this image is titled “Lockdown.” It was taken in January 2021 in Windsor, in England. It shows the photographer’s daughter, who was looking at the stars with her stuffed animal. The stars outside look a lot like how pandemic winter may have seemed to many of us: an anxious, monotonous blur.
The photo reminds the viewer of how great an expanse lies beyond our own world. With nowhere to go during covid-19, the stars make for an alluring getaway. “With window frames paralleling prison bars, this piece is a reminder of the realities of lockdown life for so many of us,” said judge Sue Prichard, a senior curator for arts at Royal Museums Greenwich, in a Royal Observatory Greenwich release. “However, the photographer has beautifully captured a sense of wonder and hope for the future – a message we truly need, even post-COVID.”
Planets, Comets and Asteroids
The most brain-bending photo of the bunch may be “A Colurful Quadrantid Meteor” by Frank Kuszaj. Taken in Cook Station, Missouri in January 2021, the photograph captures a meteor from the now-obsolete constellation Quadrans Muralis. The photographer was expecting to take pictures of more distant objects that night, like galaxies, but after setting up to do so, a meteor appeared.
The photograph was something of an accident, as Kuszaj intended to zoom in on the meteor but didn’t. The resulting composition was the fireball’s streak across the sky, exposed over the course of a full minute. Because the photo captures the meteor’s path instead of the object itself, it looks like someone took a pair of scissors to spacetime, cutting a thin line through which some new dimension might exist.
This image is wild because the Moon feels within reach, and because the photo was taken on a swath of Earth that doesn’t feel particularly Earthlike. The photographer was in Death Valley National Park, but with the Moon rising above the dunes, the vibe feels a lot more Tatooine. The dunes are cast in an ethereal light — perhaps helped by the fact that this image is actually four different photographs, each with different exposure settings.
Stars and Nebulae
Titled “California Dreamin NGC 1499,’” this image captures the Californian Nebula, a 100-light-year-long cloud of dust and gas that resides about 1,000 light-years from Earth. The image was captured over seven nights in 2021. It is not a true-colour image — some of the gases are mapped to specific colours (hydrogen to green, a kind of sulphur to red, and doubly ionised oxygen to blue).
“While nebulae are often known for resembling colourful clouds in space, this photographer has managed to beautifully use a rainbow of colour to tease out the different gases in the California Nebula,” said competition judge Emily Drabek-Maunder, an astrophysicist, astronomer, and science communicator at Royal Observatory Greenwich, in an observatory release. “The composition of the photograph almost looks like a splash of paint against the starry background!” All the stars in the nebula were removed from the image and digitally replaced in post-processing with the stars from the red, green, and blue wavelength data. The resultant image is a starburst of colour in space.
Zhipu Wang was the winner of this year’s youth competition, with a family portrait of the solar system (excluding Earth). From left to right, the planets are: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Uranus. Obviously Pluto is not present because it is a dwarf planet. The seven planets are framed by the Sun at left and the Moon (blown up to match the Sun) at right. The photos were all taken in Yongtai, China, between August 2020 and January 2021.
The competition’s Manju Mehrotra Family Trust Prize for Best Newcomer went to Paul Eckhardt of the United States, for his shot of Falcon 9. Hours before the craft launched, Eckhardt used a program to figure out the rocket’s trajectory and the precise location it would intersect with the Moon in the sky. After an unexpected stop near the Florida launch site due to a closed gate, he only just got the shot.
Image Innovation Winners
There were two joint winners for the Annie Maunder Prize for Image Innovation, both of which used inventive techniques in their compositions. One of them — “Celestial Fracture” by Leonardo Di Maggio — is an assembly of images of Saturn, its moons, and its rings. All the images were taken by the Cassini spacecraft between 2004 and 2007. Together, the images are a peculiar combination of straight lines (mostly from the rings) and curves (from the planet’s spherical shape). All in black and white, they allow the viewer to focus on the planet’s geometries without being distracted by its colours.
“A spectacular dance between science and art,” said Imad Ahmed, a competition judge and the director of the New Crescent Society, in a Royal Observatory Greenwich statement. “We associate Saturn with its timeless rings, but the quasi-cubist treatment, with its awkward angles, offered a refreshing perspective that really captured the judges’ imagination.”
The other winner is “Another Cloudy Day on Jupiter” by Sergio Díaz Ruiz of Spain. The image’s name pretty much speaks for itself: It’s a close-up look at a tranche of our favourite gas giant, a slurry of orange, rust, and off-white whorls. The image was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope on a number of different channels and colour edited.