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Beautiful astronomy photos of 2020

The annual Insight Investment Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, organized by the Royal Museums Greenwich, invites astrophotographers to submit their best photos of the wonders of the universe. Thousands of astrophotographers from around the world submitted their best pictures this year, and the winners of each category have just been announced.

From almost-unbelievable northern lights patterns to nebulas and solar eclipses, these are the winners, runner-ups, and highly commended images of this year’s contest in each category.

Galaxies

Winner in the category and overall winner: “Andromeda Galaxy at Arm’s Length?” by Nicolas Lefaudeux

Have you ever dreamt of touching a galaxy? This version of the Andromeda Galaxy seems to be at arm’s length among clouds of stars. Unfortunately, this is just an illusion, as the galaxy is still two million light years away. In order to obtain the tilt-shift effect, the photographer 3D-printed a part to hold the camera at an angle at the focus of the telescope. The blur created by the defocus at the edges of the sensor gives this illusion of closeness to Andromeda.

Runner-up: “NGC 3628 with 300,000 Light Year Long Tail” by Mark Hanson

NGC 3628 is a popular galaxy target for both astrophotographers and visual observers with its distinctive dust lane. Studies by professional astronomers have shown that the evolution of some galaxies is the product of a series of minor merges with smaller dwarf galaxies. This image is an epic undertaking of five years of exposures taken with three different telescopes, although the majority of the exposure was in 2019. The goal of this ambitious mosaic is to show the tidal tail, measuring 300,000 light-years in length, with enough depth combined with a wide field of view to show it in its entirety.

Highly commended: “Attack on the Large Magellanic Cloud” by Juan-Carlos Munoz-Mateos

Despite what the title might imply, this image has nothing to do with space warfare. It shows four lasers of one of the telescopes at Paranal Observatory pointing towards a globular cluster in the Large Magellanic Cloud. The lasers excite sodium atoms located in a layer about 80–90 kilometers above the ground. This creates four artificial “stars” that are then used to monitor and correct the atmospheric turbulence, delivering very sharp images. These artificial stars can be seen in this image at the very ends of the laser beams.

Aurorae

Winner: “The Green Lady” by Nicholas Roemmelt

The photographer had heard a lot of stories about the “lady in green.” Although he has had the chance to photograph the northern lights many times, he had never seen the “green lady” before. On a journey to Norway, she unexpectedly appeared with her magical green clothes making the whole sky burn with green, blue, and pink colors.

Runner up: “Lone Tree under a Scandinavian Aurora” by Tom Archer

The photographer decided to explore on foot around the hotel on a very crisp -35°C [-31°F] evening in Finnish Lapland. When he found this tree, he decided to wait for the misty conditions to change and could not believe his luck when the sky cleared and the aurora came out in the perfect spot. The photographer spent about an hour photographing it before his camera started to lock up due to the conditions, but by then he was happy to call it a night.

Highly commended: “Iceland” by Kristina Makeeva

Winters in Iceland require some training in terms of wind protection equipment. Iceland is a country with very strong winds, so a stable tripod is required to shoot the aurora. Many astrophotographers wait in a certain place for several hours to capture the Aurora Borealis. The photographer was lucky in this instance as she waited near Diamond Beach where the reflection of the aurora on the ice was beautiful.

Skyscapes

Winner: “Painting the Sky” by Thomas Kast

The photographer was searching for clear skies in Finnish Lapland to capture the beauty of a polar night and couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw what was waiting behind the clouds. Polar stratospheric clouds are something the photographer has been searching for many years and had seen only in photographs until that day. He took his camera onto a frozen river to get a good view and started to take photos. The clouds slowly changed their shape and colors. It was like watching someone painting, especially when the sun was lower — it started to get a darker orange and the pink shades became stronger.

Runner-up: “Desert Magic” by Stefan Leibermann

The photographer took this image during a trip through Jordan. He stayed for three days in the desert at Wadi Rum. During the night, the photographer tried to capture the amazing starry sky over the desert. He used a star tracker device to capture the sky. The photographer found this red dune as a foreground and captured the imposing Milky Way center in the sky.

Highly commended: “Voice of the Universe” by Weijian Chen

This is the aerial radar tower on the edge of the city of Taiyuan. Looking up from the middle of the mountain, it is more like a launch tower that communicates with extra-terrestrial civilizations. Between the mountains there is no sound. Facing the east, we can see the stars shining. It is here we seem to hear the voice of the Universe.

Our Moon

Winner: “Tycho Crater Region with Colours” by Alain Paillou

The Tycho crater is one of the most famous craters on the Moon. This huge impact has left very impressive scars on the Moon’s surface. With the colors of the soils, Tycho is even more impressive. This picture combines one session with a black-and-white camera, to capture the details and sharpness, and one session with a color camera, to capture the colors of the soils. These colors come mainly from metallic oxides in small balls of glass and can give useful information about the moon’s geology and history. The blue shows a high titanium oxide concentration and the red shows high iron oxide concentration. This picture reveals the incredible beauty and complexity of our natural satellite.

Runner-up: “HDR Partial Lunar Eclipse with Clouds” by Ethan Roberts

During the 2019 partial lunar eclipse, the photographer managed to capture this fantastic image of the Moon while a small cloud passed in front of it. You can see the Earth’s shadow on the top right and its striking orange color caused by the sun’s light passing through the atmosphere. This is a high dynamic range image, meaning both the darker, shadowed region is correctly exposed as well as the much brighter parts of the moon. This processing technique also allows the clouds to be seen more clearly, giving the moon a similar appearance to that of a solar corona.

Highly commended: “Moon Base” by Daniel Koszela

This photo shows the full moon over the highest peak of the Krkonoše Mountains, Śnieżka at 1602 meters. The single-frame image was taken in December 2019, shortly after sunset, two kilometers from the summit. The weather was perfect with few clouds and no wind. The building on the left is a meteorological observatory, and on the right you can see the chapel of St. Lawrence.

Our Sun

Winner: “Liquid Sunshine” by Alexandra Hart

Solar minimum may be seen as a quiet Sun and deemed dull in white light, but if you look closely at the small-scale structure, the surface is alive with motion. This surface is about 100 kilometers thick and the ever-boiling motion of these convection cells circulate, lasting for around 15 to 20 minutes. They are around 1,000 kilometers in size and create a beautiful ‘crazy paving’ structure for us to enjoy.

Runner-up: “145 Seconds of Darkness” by Filip Ogorzeski

This image was captured during the total solar eclipse seen on 2 July 2019. The photographer traveled 13,000 kilometers from Poland to Chile to see the total solar eclipse. His plan was to create the most minimalist picture of this breath-taking event and capture the brief moment when nature freezes; the birds fly to their nests and the temperature drops during 145 seconds of darkness.

Highly commended: “Ultraviolet” by Alan Friedman

Here is a portrait of the Sun captured through a specialized solar telescope that transmits light at the calcium K-line — a narrow slice of the spectrum in the near UV. This wavelength shows the details of the low chromosphere – a crackling texture, here undisturbed by active regions or sunspots. This tranquillity is the signature of solar minimum. In 2019 the Sun showed no sunspots on 281 days.

People & Space

Winner: “The Prison of Technology” by Rafael Schmall

The star in the center of the image is the Albireo double star, surrounded by the trails of moving satellites. How many more might there be by the time we reach next year’s competition? There could be thousands of moving dots in the sky. In order to create astrophotos, photographers have to carefully plan where to place the telescope, and this will be more difficult in the future with more satellites in the way.

Runner-up: “Observe the Heart of the Galaxy” by Tian Li

This image depicts the photographer climbing the radio telescope and Mingantu solar radio telescope array. First the photographer tested and moved his camera so that the M8 and M20 nebulae would appear right next to the telescope. After taking the foreground image, he moved his camera a little bit but still pointing at the same location in the sky, and captured the background with an equatorial mount.

Highly commended: “AZURE Vapor Tracers” by Yang Sutie

At the top of fjords in Arctic Norway, the photographer was met with an unknown sky. Was it aliens? Was it the supernatural? He captured a series of photos to record the night and didn’t know until the next day that the colors were actually created by the ‘Auroral Zone Upwelling Rocket Experiment (AZURE)’ from Andøya Space Centre which dispersed gas tracers to probe winds in Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Planets, Comets, & Asteroids

Winner: “Space Between US” by Łukasz Sujka

This image shows the really close alignment of the moon and Jupiter that happened on 31 October 2019. In the full resolution picture, you’ll see that there are three of Jupiter’s moons also visible. This small project is a big challenge that involves a lot of luck and good seeing conditions. To capture this phenomenon in such a big scale was quite demanding in data acquisition as Jupiter and the moon traveled across the sky quite fast. It happened in altitude only 9 degrees above the horizon. I wanted to show the huge emptiness and the size of space, which is why there is a lot of ‘nothing’ between the two major parts of the image.

Runner-up: “The Outer Reaches” by Martin Lewis

On 3 December 2019, the cloud cleared around mid-evening to reveal exceptionally steady skies over the photographer’s home in the UK. Making the most of the conditions, he turned his telescope to the distant planet Uranus and started gathering video frames using an infrared filter to bring out cloud details on this otherwise visually bland planet. To get the best images, a photographer must average the best of many short exposures. For an object as faint as Uranus, this means the individual frames are very noisy. That night, even through these noisy preview frames, the lighter polar region could be easily seen — a most exceptional situation and a testament to the steady skies that night.

Highly commended: “The Ghost of Alnilam and a Near Earth Asteroid” by Robert Stephens

Sometimes, what appears to be a disaster in astronomical imaging actually becomes a nice composition. The photographer’s telescopes normally observe and study near-Earth asteroids. While following the asteroid (11405) 1999 CV3, he was surprised to see an extremely bright star. It was the 1.8 magnitude Alnilam, the middle star in the Belt of Orion. It cast internal reflections throughout the telescope, but fortunately they avoided the asteroid crossing the centre of the field of view. This near-Earth asteroid was approximately 78 million miles away at the time. Alnilam is about 2,000 light-years away, meaning the light we are seeing now left the star in biblical times. The light that left the asteroid was about eight minutes old.

Stars & Nebulae

Winner: “Cosmic Inferno” by Peter Ward

NGC 3576 is a well-known nebula in southern skies but is shown here without any stars. Software reveals just the nebula, which has been mapped into a false color palette. The scene takes on the look of a celestial fire-maelstrom. The image is intended to reflect media images taken in Australia during 2019 and 2020, where massive bushfires caused the destruction of native forests and have claimed over 12 million acres of land. It shows nature can act on vast scales and serves as a stark warning that our planet needs nurturing.

Runner-up: “The Dolphin Jumping out of an Ocean of Gas” by Connor Matherne

This target is officially known as Sh2-308, but the photographer has always enjoyed calling it the Dolphin Nebula. It is a bubble of gas being shed by the bright blue star in the center of the image as it enters its pre-supernova phase. The red star to the right could possibly be influencing the shape too and might be responsible for the bill of the dolphin. While it won’t explode in our lifetimes, seeing the warning signs are quite neat. It never hurts to say that the warning signs are the most beautiful part of this particular target!

Highly commended: “The Misty Elephant’s Trunk” by Min Xie

The photographer imaged IC 1396, otherwise known as the Elephant’s Trunk, in the Hubble palette from my light-polluted backyard in Coppell, Texas. This image presents the Elephant’s Trunk surrounded by the emission clouds with a misty feeling and an emphasized blue doubly ionized oxygen area as the background. It really gives the feeling of the trunk emerging from the distance.

Young Competition

Winner: “The Four Planets and the Moon” by Alice Fock Hang

Photographing a planetary alignment requires rigor and patience but also a lot of luck. That evening, despite preparing everything for a week, the photographer encountered clouds. The magic started after sunset, where the moonset, Venus, Mercury, the star Antares, Jupiter and Saturn could be seen over the Indian Ocean. By looking at the sky map, The photographer could see that Pluto was there also above Saturn but invisible in my image. Note also the presence of Alpha Centuari on the left of the image as well as our immense galaxy, the Milky Way.

Runner-up: “Detached Prominences” by Thea Hutchinson

This is the Sun imaged from London in September 2019. This is a composite of two images, one exposed for the solar prominences and the other for the solar disc. The solar disc image was inverted, converted to false color and blended with the prominence in Photoshop as a dark layer. This was the first time the photographer used this technique.

Highly commended: “Light Bridge in the Sky” by Xiuquan Zhang

The photographer visited Iceland with his mother in 2019. The sky there is wonderful every night. The photographer had never seen such a scene before! The aurora is magical, as you can see in this photo.

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