The beauty of the night sky

Urban light pollution has so dimmed the heavens that those of us living in cities barely register the awesome spectacle countless generations of our forebears contemplated nightly. The night sky inspired imaginative creation stories and intricate mythologies. It turned thoughts to religion and to science, to astrology and astronomy.

Yet even as the industrial age has shrouded the stars, technology has also put within reach of the average person the ability to see them like never before. The citizen scientist now has access to equipment that was once the province of dedicated astronomers bankrolled by principalities and philanthropy.

It is to encourage average people to reach for the stars that the Central West Astronomical Society, based at CSIRO’s Parkes Radio Observatory in western New South Wales, sponsors an annual astrophotography competition. The David Malin Awards are named in honour of the renowned British-born Australian astronomer and photographer who pioneered a range of techniques to photograph astronomical images. Malin judges the entries, with awards given in eight categories.

A touring exhibition of the 2017 finalists organised by Australia’s Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, called Winning Sky 2017, toured the country. A permanent exhibition can be seen at the Parkes Observatory. Here a few of our favourites.

Witch’s Head Nebula: The overall winner of this year’s competition is a deep sky image of the dust clouds IC 2118, also known as the Witch Head Nebula, “This is one of the best images I have seen of this object,” Malin said in his citation, “and does full justice to its delicate structure and colour, with pin-sharp stars all around.” Credit: Phil Hart
Night Glow: Shot at the Tessellated Pavement on the south-east coast of Tasmania, this image of the galactic core with a soft green airglow is juxtaposed with oceanic bioluminescent algae. Credit: Ben Swanson
Milky Way Rift: This wide angle mosaic image combines about 50 shots. It shows the brightest part of the Milky Way, highlighting the galactic rift. In the picture is the cloud known as the Dark River connecting connect the Pipe Nebula to the star Antares. The red blob at the top right is the Sh2-27 Zeta-Ophiuchi nebula, and below it are the Blue Horsehead, Lagoon, Eagle and Trifid nebulae. Mars and Saturn are also in view. Credit: Troy Caswell
Emu In The Sky: The winner of the category for photographers age 18 and under, this image of the constellation called the Emu by indigenous Australians (and the Rhea by the Tupi of South American) combines eight 13-second exposures from a camera with a relatively small sensor. “The colour balance and dynamic range are expertly rendered,” Malin said, “and the scene is enhanced by a well placed tree.” Credit: Baillie Farley
Red Airglow over Calverts: Airglow captured at Calverts Beach on the South Arm Peninsula in south-east Tasmania, “Airglow is ever-present in the night sky but too faint to be seen in colour,” Malin observed. “Its faintness and angular extent make it a challenge for modern digital cameras. This superb example is compiled from 20 20-second exposures seamlessly combined.” Credit: James Garlick
Airglow of Mount Magnet: A panoramic shot combining 32 images that captures zodiacal light, the arc of the Milky Way and an intense band of airglow. It was taken south of Mount Magnet in the mid-west of Western Australia. Credit: Grahame Kelaher
Metallic Rose: A deep-sky image of the Rosette Nebula taken at the Savannah Skies observatory west of Cairns in Far North Queensland. Seeking to achieve a three-dimensional effect as much as possible, the photographer says his ambition was to portray the nebula not as a soft flower “but a new, sharper, somewhat metallic object”. Credit: Tim Carruthers

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