Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2016

Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2016
The Sun as you've never before seen it. A twilight aurora, lunar landscapes, and galaxies far far away. There was all that and more in the Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2016 exhibition at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

In eight years the competition has grown from a few hundred entries in four categories to over 4500 entries in ten categories plus two special prizes. Here are some of the highlights for me, but at the end of the article you can find out how to see all of the winning images.

“Baily's Beads” by Yu Jun (China)
The overall winner (and also winner for Our Sun) was a fascinating photo made of images taken at a total solar eclipse. Unusually, it concentrated on the phenomenon known as Baily's beads. Having taken a series of shots, the photographer stacked the images to show how Baily's beads developed during the eclipse, with the fully darkened Sun in the center. It's an arresting image and no wonder the judges were unanimous in recognizing Yu Jun as the Astronomy Photographer of the Year.

During a total solar eclipse, the Moon moves between us and the Sun, and hides the solar disk. But the Moon isn't smoothly round, it has mountains and craters giving it a rough edge. For a short time at the start of totality, just before the Moon completely covers the Sun’s disk, sunlight peeks through the lunar valleys. It looks like beads of light. The beads also show up on the opposite side just as totality ends. Francis Baily (1774-1844) was an English astronomer whose popular account of a total eclipse first drew attention to this phenomenon.

Last year's overall winner was a picture of a solar eclipse on the Arctic island of Svalbard. This year's winner in the Aurorae category, “Twilight Aurora” by György Soponyai (Hungary), was taken on Svalbard on the evening of that eclipse. Although his photo also shows the dramatic landscape, it captures a different heavenly phenomenon, the aurora borealis. The aurora was strong enough to be visible even in the twilight. The Sun was below the horizon, but still illuminating Adventtoppen Mountain, and there's orange in the foreground from the lights of Longyearbyen Airport.

I was quite taken by the Runner-up, “Black and White Aurora” by Kolbein Svensson (Norway). The camera provides beautiful colors in aurora pictures, but our eyes don't respond well in dim light. Often an aurora appears almost grey, yet the movement and changing shape catches your eye. In this dramatic and elegant picture Svensson has superbly captured the shape of an aurora with no distracting color.

Our Moon
The winning picture was an exquisitely detailed portrait by Jordi Delpeix Borrell (Spain) of our “Moon From Maurolycus to Moretus”. (Maurolycus and Moretus are lunar craters.)

However what caught my eye was less technical, but more artistic. It was the Runner-up, “Moonrise at the Pier” by Sergio Garcia (Mexico). One of the judges, a museum art curator, described it:
A great picture of contrasts – planes and curves, bold colours and dusky atmosphere, human leisure and lunar features. The straight lines of the seashore and pier are perfectly balanced by the twirling loops of the roller coaster, the Ferris wheel and the Moon.

Skyscapes includes features of landscape or cityscape along with features of the night sky. Ainsley Bennett (UK) won it with “Binary Haze”. He went to photograph the Moon grouped with three planets, and ended up with a splendidly atmospheric shot of a misty countryside and mysterious sky.

The winner was “M94:Deep-Space Halo” by Nicolas Outters (France). M94 is a spiral galaxy about 16 million light years away in the constellation Canes Venatici (the Hunting Dogs). Lovely picture, but what impressed me even more was the colorful Highly Commended “Antlia Galaxy Cluster: Extreme Deep Field” by Rolf Wahl Olsen (Denmark). He took 150 hours of exposure over six months in Auckland, New Zealand. Because of the depth of view, there are around a hundred galaxies in this small patch of sky.

Stars and Nebulae
The galaxies contain countless billions of stars, but Steve Brown (UK) concentrated on just one star to produce his winning entry “The Rainbow Star”. The star Sirius seems to shimmer and change color. These are distortions created by Earth's atmosphere, and as the brightest star in the sky, the effects are magnified. Since Sirius is low in the northern hemisphere sky, we see it through the densest part of the atmosphere.

Brown decided to present the variations by videoing “the star deliberately out of focus. [Then he] picked out the frames [with] the most striking colors and put them together in [a] composite image.” The image was presented as a set of colored dots which one judge said “could well pass as pop art.”

You can see all the winning photographs on the Royal Museums Greenwich website:

You Should Also Read:
ABC of Astronomy – B Is for Bok Globule
Aurorae – Polar Light Shows
Star-gazing – Seeing in Dim Light

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