THERE is nothing quite like that feeling of standing in an empty country field, staring up at a million stars set against a deep expanse of black. It’s a feeling of comfortable smallness. Of perspective when you measure your tiny self against the infinity of the universe.
It’s also a feeling that’s hard to recreate in a crowded city where the unnatural illumination of buildings and urban life fade the intensity of the sky above. And it’s a feeling that must be well-known to the contenders in the Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2012 competition, including Australian astronomer Martin Pugh.
Martin Pugh has claimed the top prize in the Royal Observatory’s Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition for the second time, after originally winning the accolade back in 2009. His image, M51 — The Whirlpool Galaxy depicts the famous galaxy’s spiral arms with the faint tails of light that show M51’s small companion galaxy being gradually torn apart by the gravity of its giant neighbour. A closer look also reveals more distant galaxies beyond.
“I was always going to be excited about this image given the exceptional seeing conditions M51 was photographed under and the addition of several hours of Ha data has really boosted the HII regions,” he said.
While this is potentially incomprehensible to the non-astronomers amongst us, what remains powerful and pertinent is the strength of the image, and its visual appeal even to those who don’t own a telescope.
As competition judge and Royal Observatory Public Astronomer, Dr Marek Kukula remarked, the image captures M51’s “beautiful spiral structure, dark lanes of dust, and the way the pink clouds of hydrogen really stand out — it’s a remarkable achievement by an amateur astronomer; one of the best images of M51 that I’ve seen.”
This image features in a free exhibition of the winners, runners-up and commended photographs of the competition hosted at the Royal Observatory’s Astronomy Centre. A unique opportunity to admire the majesty of the night sky without needing to take a trip to the countryside.
Entry to the Astronomy Centre at the Royal Observatory Greenwich is free, and the exhibition will run until 5 February 2013. For more information go to www.rmg.co.uk/astrophoto.
(Image: M51 — The Whirlpool Galaxy © Martin Pugh (Australia))