Just for a moment, the James Webb Space Telescope and its dazzling images can take a seat, because it’s the Earth-based photographers’ time to shine.
In the annual Astronomy Photographer of the Year contest, skywatchers from across the world vie for the coveted title and the £10,000 ($13,000) grand prize. This year, images of gigantic solar flares, colorful glowing gas and dust and transient comets above Earth’s breathtaking terrain have impressed the judges so far.
The contest, run by the Royal Observatory Greenwich, is currently in its 15th year. Amateur and professional photographers from 64 countries submitted some 4,000 images, which entered the running for nine category prizes, two special prizes and one overall prize. Winners will be announced on September 14.
Until then, the judges have narrowed the entry pool to a shortlist of images that capture the beauty of the cosmos, as seen from our home planet. Here is a selection of ten of these stunning submissions.
Dune, by Burak Esenbey
“Dunes are the reason I love to shoot in the desert,” photographer Burak Esenbey tells Royal Museums Greenwich (RMG). Here, in Egypt’s White Desert National Park, the lines of the dunes draw the eye toward the arc of the Milky Way.
Esenbey constructed this image from a vertical panorama and used a sky tracking technique that allowed for a long exposure of the night sky that is more detailed and colorful.
The bright light at the center, just above the horizon, is Earth’s so-called sister planet, Venus.
The Great Solar Flare, by Mehmet Ergün
Solar activity fluctuates on an 11-year cycle, and right now, the sun is nearing its peak. This could lead to more solar flares over the next couple of years—and in turn, we could experience more geomagnetic storms on Earth, which occur when the sun’s bursts of radiation interact with our planet’s atmosphere. These often lead to fantastic auroras.
In this image taken with an H-alpha telescope, used to view the sun in high resolution, the solar flare is “very large,” says photographer Mehmet Ergün to RMG. “According to our calculation, this solar flare is about 700,000 kilometers long.” To put that in perspective, Earth’s diameter is about 12,700 kilometers—so this flare is roughly 55 times the length of our world.
C/2021 A1 (Leonard) in Sky of Israel, by Alex Savenok
Comet Leonard dazzled viewers in December 2021, when it came within 21 million miles of our planet. The ball of ice, rock and dust’s rare journey took it toward Earth from the outer zone of our solar system. It disappeared from sight in January 2022, and that was the last time humans could catch a glimpse of it—the comet’s orbit brought it to destruction when it neared the sun and disintegrated that same year.
Here, photographer Alex Savenok captured the comet above Israel’s Negev desert. “Against the backdrop of the vibrant sunset, the comet appears as a bright and ethereal presence, its long tail stretching outwards like a cosmic beacon,” Savenok says to RMG.
Dance of the Moons, by Damian Peach
In this spectacular view of Jupiter, two of its moons stand out against the backdrop of the gas giant. At the lower left is Io, a lava-covered moon that claims the distinction of the most volcanically active body in the solar system.
And casting a shadow atop Jupiter’s stormy Great Red Spot is the icy moon Europa, one of the most promising candidates for hosting life. The moon almost certainly hides a vast liquid ocean beneath its icy crust, and scientists are planning to explore it with upcoming and current missions, including the European Space Agency’s Juice mission and NASA’s Europa Clipper.
Photographer Damian Peach created this image from several frames taken through a 14-inch telescope in Marley Vale, Barbados.
RCW 58: Wolf-Rayet Bubble, by Mark Hanson and Mike Selby
This bubble-like nebula has formed from the material ejected by WR 40, the star seen at the center of the glowing red ring. The star is called a Wolf-Rayet because of the life stage it’s in—a short-lived, rarely seen phase of stellar death. Ultra-hot Wolf-Rayet stars shed their outer layers, which then encircle them in a colorful halo.
“This just looks like you can hear it sizzling,” Mark Hanson and Mike Selby, the photographers, say in a statement to RMG.
Pandora’s Box, by Derek Horlock
On Alyko Beach in Naxos, Greece, photographer Derek Horlock walked amid the ruins of a hotel complex at night to capture this image. The terrain “is hazardous,” Horlock says to RMG. “There are deep holes in the collapsed concrete floors to avoid.”
This likeness of Pandora, from Greek mythology, was made by a Balinese artist who goes by the name “Wild Drawing.” Placing the woman in the foreground of the Milky Way is a choice by the photographer to contrast two ideas about the world and exploration.
“The moral of Pandora’s box suggests that curiosity could be dangerous, and some things are best left alone,” Horlock says to RMG. But on the other hand, astronomers and NASA “are not going to be dissuaded by the myth.” As soon as 2025, a satellite called Pandora will launch to look at stars and their exoplanets, searching for signs of habitable worlds with Earth-like atmospheres.
Ball of Rock, by Rich Addis
To create such a high-definition view of the moon, photographer Rich Addis took several close-up shots of various parts of the satellite, then stitched them together like a mosaic to craft the full, zoomed-out picture. Getting all of these images to align is not easy, as our perspective of the moon shifts as it orbits.
In this final composite, Addis combined shots of a 78 percent illuminated waxing gibbous moon with other shots of a full moon to give “the effect of a 3D sphere,” the photographer tells RMG.
Comet 2022 E3 Above Snowy Mount Etna, by Dario Giannobile
Above the snowy landscape of Sicily’s Mount Etna, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, the famed comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) appears as a turquoise blur in the night sky.
The rare, green comet made its closest approach to Earth on February 2, 2023, passing within 26 million miles of our world on a 50,000-year orbit around the sun. However, astronomers say the comet’s recent voyage could have altered its trajectory, raising the possibility that the icy ball may have left us behind for good.
Photographer Dario Giannobile captured the moment with a Canon EOS 6D camera, putting together 27 45-second exposures of the sky and two 180-second exposures of the land.
Jellyfish Nebula, by Peter Larkin
Located in the constellation Gemini, the Jellyfish Nebula is a supernova remnant some 5,000 light-years from Earth. The cloud of glowing gas represents the remains of a massive star, and when that star exploded, it might have created a pulsar at the nebula’s edge.
To capture this otherworldly sight, photographer Peter Larkin stacked several images taken with different filters, revealing details that can’t be seen with the human eye. “The image needed very little processing to bring out the contrast and details,” Larkin tells RMG. However, the stars have been removed from the shot to better highlight the nebula’s colors.
The Milky Way, by Kush Chandaria
From the Okavango Delta in Botswana, where no light pollution obscures the sky on moonless nights, the Milky Way appears bright, even without a telescope. But this view of our galaxy in all its glory is also a solemn reminder about the damage of brightening the night sky. With the artificial glow of floodlights, street lamps and illuminated signs blotting out the stars, “it’s easy to forget about what is above our heads every night,” photographer Kush Chandaria says to RMG.
“The night I took this image was the first time I had seen the Milky Way so clearly with the naked eye,” Chandaria adds. “I can only hope that in capturing this image I can share the same feeling of amazement that I felt when I looked up at the sky that night.”