Gazing up at the night sky is a reward unto itself: the splendor of the Universe awaits! But when you use a telescope and a camera, you can capture that beauty in ways that even our sophisticated eyes cannot detect.
DISCOVER and Celestron sponsored the Capture the Universe contest for astrophotographers who use Celestron equipment to bring the heavens down to Earth. Our own Bad Astronomy blogger Phil Plait judged the entries, and here are his selections as the top 10 images (11, actually--there was a tie) among the many great submissions.
#10: Andromeda Galaxy, by astrochuck
M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, is the nearest big spiral galaxy to our own. That makes it a favorite for astrophotography, but rarely do we see it done so nicely as here.
The dusty spiral arms stand out wonderfully, and its two dwarf elliptical companions are visible: NGC 205 to the right of the spiral's bright core, and M32 almost buried in M31's arms on the left. This image has impressive depth, clarity, and tracking over a large field of view, and is a great reminder that even familiar objects can be sources of great beauty.
This impressive nebula is rarely seen in photos, but is a perfect example of a small-scale star-forming factory. The hot, massive star SAO 20575 is blowing a tremendous gust of subatomic particles; a super solar wind that's carving out that vast light-year-wide bubble in the surrounding gas.
The star is so hot it's exciting the gas around it, causing it to glow red... and if you look to the right you can see fingers of material pointing right at the star, testaments to the winds and scathing ultraviolet radiation eating away at the nebular material. Someday, that star will explode and tear the nebula to shreds. So catch this object while you can!
Solar eclipses are a rare treasure, happening only once or twice a year somewhere on Earth. In this case, multiple exposures were stacked together from the June 10, 2002 partial eclipse as seen over the Tower Bridge in Sacramento, California.
Over the course of two hours, the photographer used a solar filter to take snapshots separated in time by five minutes each to create this beautiful scene of a combined terrestrial and extraterrestrial vista.
The North American nebula is one of my favorites in the whole sky, and named for pretty obvious reasons. The resemblance is uncanny, even down to the Gulf of Mexico! The nebula is so large that it's difficult to capture, but this shot is a beauty.
And note: This picture was not taken using a digital camera, but instead with specially treated film to make it more sensitive to light. Somehow, film makes the scene a little more lush, a little more warm, even if it's not in color... and the telescope was carefully hand-guided over the 30-minute exposure. This is nice work!
Located 25,000 light-years away, the M13 globular cluster looks like a beehive. In fact it's a tight collection of several hundred thousand stars, most of which are packed into a ball just a few light-years across (though the whole object is over 100 light-years in diameter).
It's easily visible using binoculars, but only in a large telescope does its true splendor reveal itself. Over 150 such clusters orbit our Milky Way galaxy, but M13 is one of the best known and best observed.
This image clearly shows stars nearly all the way into the core, and you can see that many of the stars are red, indicating their great age: The cluster is over 10 billion years old.
The Moon is the most obvious celestial object in the night sky, of course, and a favorite for amateur astrophotographers. I have countless pictures I've taken of it myself!
But it's rare to see one that is so clear, so crisp, and has such fine detail to it. Not only that, but this is a mosaic, a combination of 300 separate images (taken from 28 video streams) seamlessly integrated into a smooth whole. It's a stunning view of our nearest neighbor in space.
We have a tie! I couldn't choose between the next two, so I included them both.
Venus orbits the Sun, but not exactly on the same plane as the Earth, so it only passes directly between us and the Sun--what astronomers call a transit; think of it as a "mini-eclipse"--every century or so (and then, due to the odd dance of gravity, it happens in pairs separated by 8 years).
The last transit was in 2004, and I must admit to some bias since I saw this event myself as the Sun rose that cold morning. This image brought me right back to that moment, as I saw the black disc of our sister planet crossing the blazing disk of the rising Sun. It's a dramatic shot of what is almost literally a once-in-a-lifetime event.
This image tied with the Venus transit, and it involves our sister planet as well. But this time, instead of the Sun, the larger object is the Moon: Occasionally, the two line up in the sky providing us with this amazing view of objects that are actually separated by tens of millions of kilometers.
By coincidence, this conjunction happened when both the Moon and Venus were in the same phase; the distant planet mimicking the far closer Moon. Note how dark the Moon is compared to Venus: On average Venus reflects five times as much sunlight as the Moon.
And making this picture all the more remarkable: It was the first observation for the telescope used!
This remarkable shot looks like it could've been taken by an approaching Shuttle Orbiter, but in fact was obtained using an 11-inch telescope sitting right here on terra firma! Usually, an image this fine is made using video, cutting and pasting the best bits together. However, this picture is a stack of just 4 images taken with a digital SLR.
The space station solar panels are obvious, and you can also pick out a Russian Progress cargo module docked to the ISS. This was a definite favorite of mine, and an obvious pick for the Viewer's Choice!
17/P Holmes was a run-of-the-mill comet in 2007, a faint fuzz ball hardly worth observing since it never got closer to the Sun than twice Earth's distance. But in October of that year the comet had a huge and still poorly understood outburst, brightening by 14 magnitudes--a factor of 400,000! It became visible to the naked eye, and despite being farther away than Mars, it was obvious as a fuzzy disk even without binoculars.
This gorgeous image shows the comet as it passed the bright star Mirfak in Perseus, and is a combination of 40 exposures. I love the beautiful diffraction spikes around Mirfak, and the ghostly glow of the expanding gas cloud from the comet's paroxysms.
And the winner is...
When I announced this contest, I said that I like odd and unusual views. None of the entries fit that bill as neatly as this shot of all the solar system's planets except one (I suspect the photographer meant Pluto, but if you think Pluto's not a planet then you could interpret this as missing the Earth)... and he even included the Sun!
I love the layout he chose, as well as the colors of the planets: note rusty Mars, greenish Uranus, and cerulean Neptune. It also shows the relative apparent sizes of the planets; Venus is the same size as the Earth, but at its close proximity it appears to be bigger than the physically larger but more distant Saturn.
Even more remarkably: All these shots were taken in one day and night! The imagination, perseverance, and obvious excitement of the photographer make this picture my favorite of all the entries, and my clear choice for Best Picture.