There is a big, vast, wondrous and breathtaking universe beyond the bubble of life on Earth – though little is visible to most of us here on this pale blue dot. We look up; we can see the stars, galaxies and the disk of the Milky Way, like specks and streaks of light.
Seeing deeper and clearer requires the use of tools and people who can use them – like the incredible astrophotographers now shortlisted for the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition run by the Royal Observatory Greenwich in the UK.
This year saw the submission of more than 3,000 entries from 67 countries around the world, who received prizes in nine categories in addition to two special prizes, and the grand prize was awarded to the photographer judged to be the best in the together.
The shortlisted photographs range from near to far: images of Spaceship Earth, against a twinkling backdrop of stars; to the solar system; to more distant nebulae and colliding galaxies in an intricate dance beyond the confines of the Milky Way.
These winners won’t be announced until September 15, but the announcement of the shortlist means you can take advantage of the submissions now. As the great science communicator and astronomer Carl Sagan once wrote, “The cosmos is within us. We are made of stars. We are a way for the Universe to know itself.”
Or, if you prefer Oscar Wilde: “We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are star gazing.”
Here is a selection of some of our favourites.
Circles and curves by Sean Gobel
Taken in the California desert in a natural rock formation, this image shows a timelapse of the stars forming arcs in the sky as the Earth rotates.
In the center is Polaris, the pole star, which, due to its position almost directly above the North Pole, seems to remain motionless in the sky. It shines on the Sierra Nevada mountain range, including Mount Whitney on the left – the tallest mountain in the continental United States.
Outskirts of the Carina Nebula by Ignacio Diaz Bobillo
The Carina Nebula, located about 8,500 light-years away, is one of the largest and most beautiful cosmic clouds we can see in our sky. This small section (well, relative to the entire nebula complex) is known as RCW 53c, and it is rarely photographed in isolation.
This image, taken from Argentina, uses two colors to map the hydrogen and oxygen in the gas that makes up the cloud.
An Icelandic saga by Carl Gallagher
This single exposure image shows the Northern Lights shining through a hole in the clouds above the wreckage of the whaling ship Gardur on the coast of Iceland.
The aurora dancing in the sky is the result of the collision of solar particles and ionizing particles in the Earth’s atmosphere – very similar to the ionization process of stellar radiation that causes clouds like RCW 53c to shine.
Comet C/2021 A1 (Leonardo) by Lionel Majzik
Comet Leonard was discovered in the sky in January last year and became so bright in December that it was visible, for a time, to the naked eye. This image, revealing the intricate structures of Leonard’s magnificent tail, was captured in late December. The green glow is produced by cyanide or cyanogen in the comet’s atmosphere excited by ultraviolet radiation from the Sun.
Comet Leonard, alas, will not return: it broke up and disintegrated while circling the Sun.
The starry sky above the highest national road in the world by Yang Sutie
National Road 219 in Tibet is the highest national road in the world. In this 245-second exposure, the freeway shines in the foreground with the light of cars speeding around its twisting bends, the serene array of stars in the Milky Way’s disc shining overhead imaged in the using a separate instrument.
On the horizon, Mount Kula Kangri, on the border between Tibet and Bhutan, is illuminated by the glow of the Moon which has just set in the west.
You can see more of these images on the Royal Museums Greenwich website. The winners will be announced on September 15, 2022.