Wonders of the Universe: 23 mind-blowing photos from the Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2021 shortlist
See the year's most jaw-dropping images of space.
Thank heavens for the Royal Observatory's Astronomy Photographer of the Year awards. After most of us spent the better part of a year shut inside, the world's brightest and best astrophotography stars are here to remind us of the spectacle of what's out there.
The shortlisted images include a stunning shot of comet Neowise screaming past Stonehenge, a magical glimpse of the Northern Lights as seen from a frozen river in Iceland, and an awe-inspiring photo of a dying star named the Dolphin Head Nebula.
The competition, which is run by the Royal Observatory Greenwich in association with BBC Sky at Night Magazine, is now in its thirteenth year. This year the competition received over 4,500 entries from enthusiastic amateurs and professional photographers, taken from 75 countries across the globe.
Winners will be announced on the 16th September, and then displayed at the National Maritime Museum from Saturday 18 September.
Here's our favourite images from this year's batch. If these inspire you, why not try your hand at a bit of astrophotography with the help of our guide to astronomy for beginners.
A mesmerising panorama of the Milky Way over the lavender fields in Valensole, France. Parallel rows of flowers set against a heavenly dome make for a stunning image, even though the light pollution – the golden orange hue – is clearly visible over the whole area. The foreground was captured in the blue hour (twilight) with the camera set to a high ISO value since the wind means the lavender never stands still.
Moonrise over Jodrell Bank
Here the photographer’s managed to pull off a rare feat: capturing the Moon and the famous Lovell Telescope in one image. Finding a spot with a clear view, far enough away from the subject, and the Moon being in the sky at the correct time of day was all part of the puzzle. By the time the Moon appeared, the photographer had to drop down the focal length to 286mm to compose this image.
Dolphin Head Nebula
This is an image of the Dolphin Head Nebula, also designated as Sharpless 308, located at the centre of the constellation Canis Major. The star at the centre of this image is dying. The star's gravity became too weak to hold onto its outer layers, and so they were blown away by stellar winds generated by nuclear reactions deep within. The star's surface material is blown out into space, creating this nebula, a giant cloud of gas and dust. Eventually, the star will go supernova and die. The photographer struggled to capture this nebula for over a month due to poor conditions and was thrilled to get just 1.5 hours of total exposure time spread over 3 nights. The raw data was acquired using the Telescope Live remote telescope in Chile.
The magnetic field of our active Sun
This image shows how the magnetic field of the Sun pulls up portions of the chromosphere following a large solar flare, with the magnetic field lines on crystal clear display along the limb in hydrogen-alpha light. This also happened while a particularly large active region was along the face of the solar disc. This was captured in black and white and processed partially inverted to highlight the contrast on the surface as well as the atmospheric features on the limb, presented in false colour for the aesthetic. This was one of the most interesting features on the Sun in all of 2020 and represents the first major activity since the start of the new solar cycle.
As the photographer was driving on the mountain road at Ranwu, Tibet, China, he saw a mound on the right side of the road. The mountains and the Milky Way were lined-up in front of the photographer, so he stopped and climbed up the side of the road, set the camera to shoot automatically, and then drove back and forth in this curve. Then he climbed up the hillside and integrated himself into the picture.
This image, captured by the Cielaustral team, is a large mosaic covering a wide portion of the sky and allowing us to admire incredible details in the gaseous structures. The team acquired both narrowband images in hydrogen-alpha, doubly ionised oxygen and singly ionised sulphur spectral lines as well as natural colour images using red, green and blue filters. The total exposure time of all the frames needed to compose these majestic images is 253 hours.
Aurora in Murmansk
Capturing the polar lights in Murmansk wasn’t an easy feat for the photographer because of the bright lights in the city. To photograph the Aurora Borealis in Murmansk, Russia, you must wait for a very strong solar flare. The photographer was able to capture the Aurora over the Kola Bay after several attempts and many hours of waiting and wanted to showcase this optical phenomenon in an urban landscape.
Bicolour Veil Nebula
The Veil Nebula complex is the remnant of a giant supernova explosion. This image shows only a part of the complex as the entire nebula is around 6 times the diameter of the full Moon. Objects of this type can be photographed very effectively with narrowband filters. The photographer processed a bicolour photo from monochrome images of hydrogen-alpha and oxygen emissions.
Milky Way rising over Durdle Door
The Milky Way is rising over Durdle Door, Dorset, United Kingdom. This is a perfect spot for astrophotography as the landscape is so fascinating and aligns with the Milky Way core during a few months of the year. Saturn and Jupiter can also be seen to the left of the frame, just above the horizon. To achieve less noise in the image, the photographer used a star tracking mount to lengthen the camera’s shutter speed. However this also creates motion blur in the foreground, so two images were blended together to produce the final result.
Dark Molecular Cloud in Corona Australis
The Dark Molecular Cloud found in the constellation Corona Australis, lies some 554 light-years away from Earth, and this field of view is spanning approximately the size of a full Moon. To the left of the image, far in the distance, is the globular cluster NGC6723 which is some 28,400 light-years away. NGC6723 resides just within the constellation border of Sagittarius.
The photographer always wanted to capture a picture like this. During a visit to Breidamerkurjökull, Iceland, in January 2020, he decided to do a double exposure - one from the cave and one of the Aurora Borealis and stacked them together. The weather conditions that day were ideal, and the final result came out perfectly.
Glory of Damavand and Milky Way
This image showcases the splendour of Mount Damavand. Located north-east of the city of Tehran it is approximately 5,670 metres high and according to the photographer it is one of the most beautiful natural wonders of Iran. The Milky Way is shining on the left of the sky, and you can see Tehran's light pollution on the right. The photo was taken from the mountain at Nandal village beside a small lake and the photographer had to hike for about seven hours and ascend more than 1,000 metres to get there. The photo contains ten stacked images, five for the sky and five for the foreground.
The Flame Nebula, designated as NGC 2024 and Sh2-277, is an emission nebula in the constellation Orion, lying some 900 to 1,500 light-years away from Earth. The bright star Alnitak (just outside the field of view at the top of this image), the easternmost star in the Belt of Orion, shines energetic ultraviolet light into the Flame and this knocks electrons away from the great clouds of hydrogen gas that reside there. Much of the glow results when the electrons and ionised hydrogen recombine. Additional dark gas and dust lies in front of the bright part of the nebula, and this is what causes the dark network that appears in the centre of the glowing gas.
If you are enjoying this gallery, why not check out some of our other sets:
- 22 amazing images in science June 2021
- Strawberry supermoon images from around the world
- Mars bases and robot babies: The best images in science May 2021
In the Tengger Desert, located in Minqin County, Wuwei City, China, there is a mysterious group of artificial sculptures. The metal columns that point to the sky in this picture are called raindrops. By day, it falls like a raindrop in the desert, but the photographer prefers it at night under the Milky Way. After the Moon sets, the metal sculpture reflects the light of the Milky Way, making the sculpture's outline very clear. Extremely bright starlight in the desert is reflected off the metal surface like a column of light from a vast universe of stars hitting the ground.
The photograph shows a captivating star trail over Dugi Otok in Croatia and the extraordinary relationship between our Planet and the Universe in a way that the human eye cannot perceive it. The photographer intended to capture the reflection of the stars on the water together with the sky, however during the long exposure time that was necessary for star trails the wind increased and seeing conditions were not favourable enough for a clear reflection of the stars. The photographer had to use the stars from the sky in post-processing to achieve the final result.
Saturn at its Best
In this image, taken in La Palma, Mucia, Spain, Saturn is shown near its best for 2020, displaying a wealth of details across the globe and ring system. The famous polar hexagon can be seen around the pole at bottom, while many other belts and zones are seen across the planet. The Cassini and Encke divisions dominate the view of the rings.
This is a 250° panorama of the Aurora Borealis in Iceland. The photographer came across this estuary that reflected the sky perfectly on a well below freezing winter's night, and captured the panorama first, and then took a shot of himself out on the ice. For the photographer this is one of the most amazing aurora images that he has ever captured, and it sums up an awe-inspiring trip to Iceland in wintertime that also emphasised the feeling of being just a tiny part of the planet’s existence in the face of a very powerful natural environment.
Photographing galaxies has excited the photographer’s imagination for a long time, as has putting well-known subjects into unusual and unexpected compositions away from traditional depictions. A good way to do this is to show a galaxy in such a way that it completely fills the field of view and that is exactly what the photographer accomplished here with the Andromeda Galaxy.
Château de Chambord
This magnificent château in Chambord, Centre-Val de Loire, France, was an amazing location chosen by the photographer’s best friend and mentor Ralf Rohner, but it proved to be a challenging one as the castle had intervals of illumination with a minute’s pause every 15 minutes. During the pauses, the photographer shot away trying to get as many images as possible and while processing it he had to try to mimic the reflection due to the time delay caused by the castle lights.
Sunrise of the Magic City
Shanghai is one of the most economically developed cities in China. The photo is taken 16 kilometres away from Lujiazui financial district. Every year there are only a few weeks when photographers can capture the scene of the Sun rising over the Central Business District. The photographer waited for a few days and finally witnessed the Sun rising from the most prosperous area of Shanghai on a heavily polluted morning. The photo is composed of four different exposures from the same perspective, recording the process of the Sun rising.
Comet Neowise over Stonehenge
The image depicts the Comet NEOWISE passing over Stonehenge in the United Kingdom. The orange glow is light pollution from the nearby villages of Durrington and Larkhill, and a passing lorry very kindly painted the rocks with light. For the photographer, the thought that this historic site did not exist when the comet NEOWISE last passed the Earth is quite fascinating. The comet is due to return in approximately 6,800 years. The photograph is a single exposure taken early on the morning of 20 July 2020.
Star trails over the Lujiazui City Skyline
This image shows star trails over the Lujiazui city in Pudong District, and you can even distinguish the Belt of Orion. Lujiazui is the most prosperous place in Shanghai, China and the light pollution is very heavy but if the weather is clear, you can see the stars. The photographer captured this photo on a very clear autumn night. The beautiful starry sky is above us, and even if you live in a city, and you can still look up at it.
The Star Observer
Menorca was declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1993 and credited as a Starlight Reserve in 2019. The photographer captured this image at this natural stone bridge shaped by water erosion at Pont den Gil, Ciutadella, Spain. A watchman stands vigilant under the stars as the Milky Way is vertical above the natural arch. To add a soft and warm tone to the arch, the photographer used the light pollution from Mallorca, the neighbouring island. The photographer wanted to humanise the landscape and incorporate the human element in the composition to prove that we are just nature’s guests.
James Cutmore is the picture editor of BBC Science Focus Magazine, researching striking images for the magazine and on the website. He is also has a passion for taking his own photographs