Astronomy Photographer of the Year: Stars and Nebulae

The award winning entries in the Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2016 competition in the category ‘Stars and Nebulae’.

The winners of the competition’s nine categories and two special prizes were announced on Thursday 15th September at a special award ceremony at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. A free exhibition featuring the winning images is now open at the Observatory’s Astronomy Centre.

Winner: The Rainbow Star by Steve Brown

© Steve Brown
© Steve Brown

“Whenever I see Sirius in the night sky I always take a moment to enjoy the rapid cycle of colours it displays, especially when close to the horizon. Not for nothing is Sirius called the ‘Rainbow Star’, as the twinkling of the star seems to go through every colour of the rainbow. Ever since I took up astrophotography I have been searching for the best way to show these colours in a photograph. After thinking about the best way of doing this, and some experimentation, I finally hit upon the idea of videoing the star deliberately out of focus. By doing this the light from Sirius was spread out over a larger area, which resulted in the colours it displayed being more obvious. Also, video is essentially a way of taking many images very quickly, providing the best chance of capturing each flash of colour as it occurred. To create the final picture, I picked out the video frames that contained the most striking colours and put them together in this composite image. I was surprised by the sheer number of different colours that came out. I was expecting to see mostly reds, greens and blues but it was amazing to see purples, pinks, oranges and many other colours besides. Sirius truly lives up to its name as the ‘Rainbow Star’! To capture the video of Sirius I used a Canon 600D with 250mm lens, mounted on a Star Adventurer tracking mount, to keep the star steady in the frame. I also deliberately broke several astrophotography rules to get a better result. Not only was the video intentionally out of focus but I also chose a time when Sirius was low on the horizon. This resulted in very poor seeing, something normally best avoided. In this case though it was just what I wanted as light from the star was then passing through more atmosphere, which resulted in more twinkling and therefore a greater range of colours.” – Steve Brown (UK)

Stokesley, North Yorkshire, UK
Canon EOS 600D camera with Star Adventurer tracking mount, 250 mm lens, ISO 3200, stacked 70 of 1500 frames

Runner Up: Perseus Molecular Cloud by Pavel Pech

© Pavel Pech
© Pavel Pech

“This image shows a large amount of interesting deep sky objects at the edge of Aries and Perseus constellation. Probably the most famous is NGC1333 a reflection nebula (shining in the blue colour) located in the top right part of the image. It is surrounded by B205 a Barnard dark nebula and Herbig-Haro objects. Even small-scale emission nebulae (red colour) are there to be discovered in that area. There are also other reflection nebulae like e.g. vdB12, vdB13 and vdB16 shining in blue and yellow colours. But what mostly dominates this image are dark nebulae. Most interesting thing on dark nebulae is that we can see them only because of high contrast against the image background and because of dense dust there are no stars to be seen at all in the visible spectrum of the light. Only an infra-red image would show stars in the magic black parts. This image is a composition of LRGB data where Luminance channel has big impact on the contrast and visibility of objects while the high quality RGB data, taken under very dark sky with minimum of light pollution, assure a colourful image edge to edge. It was taken during 6 different nights and the total integration time was 12 hours as only the best, high quality data were used in the image processing.” – Pavel Pech (Czech Republic)

Šumava National Park, Czech Republic
ASA 10-inch Newtonian telescope, Gemini 53F mount, Moravian Instruments G3-11000 CCD camera, f/3.6 reducer, 120 x 6-minute exposures

Highly Commended: Starlight and Silhouettes by Tom O’Donoghue

© Tom O'Donoghue
© Tom O’Donoghue

“This is a 110 hour mosaic, of 36 panes, showcasing the Summer Skies from the Northern Hemisphere. Parts of the constellations Sagittarius, Scutum, Serpens, and Ophiuchus can be seen in this image. Each pane was taken at a resolution of 0.53m, and a full frame CCD camera. Many of the well-known bright Messier Nebulae, such as the Lagoon, Trifid, Eagle, and Swan can be seen, as well as an array of Barnard Dark Nebulae. The image also has various Open and Globular clusters, while the more difficult to find Planetary Nebulae, and even bright Red Carbon stars lurk in the background. This image was taken over four years, and totals 110 hours. 57 of which were taken in 2015 using a triple telescope system.” – Tom O’Donoghue (Ireland)

Etoile St Cyrice, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, France
Takahashi FSQ-106N f/5 refractor telescope, Takahashi EM-200 mount, Atik 11000 CCD camera, 110-hour total exposure