Choosing the winners of this contest gets harder each year, as the quality of submissions steadily ratchets upward. Astro-imaging is now a major component of amateur astronomy for two major reasons: the equipment is better than ever and is available at increasingly competitive prices. But here’s a tip. If you are looking to break in, start with the tripod-mounted unguided category. It is the easiest method to achieve decent results, yet it always has the fewest entries. Typically, a 20-second exposure takes the category prize.
Winner: Mark Viol took this photo of Comet Garradd near the loose globular cluster M71 on August 26, 2011, at the Starfest summer star party/astronomy convention, held annually at a campground near Mount Forest, Ontario. A Canon 7D was used on an 11-inch Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope with a 6.3 focal reducer. Guiding was through a 9×50 finderscope with a DSI Pro II mounted on a Sky-Watcher EQ6. Eight 3-minute exposures at ISO 1600 were digitally stacked to create the final image. The judges commented on the sharpness and rich colour in this portrait of a rare alignment of a comet in our solar system with a star cluster 12,000 light-years distant.
Prize: Celestron NexStar 8SE telescope.
Best Deep-Sky With Digital SLR or Webcam-Type Imager
Winner: Rose-Marie Burke, Glenburnie, Ontario, wanted to shoot the night sky in mid-March, while Orion was still visible above a lake near her home. Turns out that the view also included Taurus, the Pleiades, Venus and Jupiter. In this 4-minute exposure, the zodiacal light is apparent as well. Equipment: Canon 350D, Sigma 10-20mm lens set at 10mm, f/4 at IS0 400, on homemade barn-door tracker.
Prize: Meade Deep Sky Imager DSI Pro II (either colour or monochrome, as the winner chooses).
Honourable Mention: For this two-frame mosaic of the region above the red giant star Antares, Shawn Nielsen of Kitchener, Ontario, used a filter-modified Canon 350D DSLR camera on a Sky-Watcher Equinox 80mm apo refractor, piggybacked on a Milburn Wedge-mounted Celestron CPC 800 for tracking. Calibration, alignment and stacking in Nebulosity software. Processed entirely in Photoshop CS5.
Best Digital-Camera Photo: Lunar and Planetary
Winner: In the early-morning cold of December 10, 2011, several members of the Toronto Centre of The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada gathered at Humber Bay Park, on the shore of Lake Ontario, to observe the International Space Station pass in front of the Moon at 3:52 a.m. The pass was visible for only about half a second, but club member Bill Longo managed to catch the station near the Moon’s centre using a Canon 5D Mark II attached to a Celestron 9.25-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. (The space station with its solar panels is H-shaped.)
Prize: Air-spaced doublet 102mm achromatic refractor, focal length 1100mm from CanadianTelescopes.com.
Honourable Mention: Daniel Borcard spent the evening of March 31, 2012, in his observatory near Saint-Roch-de-l’Achigan, Quebec, gathering images of the region of the Moon around the flat-floored crater Plato and nearby Alpine Valley. A Celestron 9.25-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain was used with a 2x Barlow, red (Wratten 25) filter and Imaging Source DMK 31AF03 camera. Mosaic of two images, each a stack of more than 400 frames.
Best Deep-Sky Digital High-Resolution Imagery
Winner: Rémi Lacasse obtained this fine deep-sky image of the star-forming nebula IC410, in the constellation Auriga, on December 28, 2011, from his home observatory near Mont-Tremblant, Quebec. He used an RC Optical Systems 12.5-inch Ritchey-Chrétien telescope at f/9 on a Paramount ME mount. Camera: SBIG STX-16803; total exposure, more than 11 hours.
Prize: Sky-Watcher 200mm reflector telescope (1000mm focal length), complete with 8×50 finderscope, eyepiece and mount.
Honourable Mention: With his 5-inch apo TeleVue NP-127is refractor, Daniel Meek of Calgary, Alberta, took this narrowband CCD image of NGC6992, the Veil Nebula, a supernova remnant in Cygnus. A QSI 583wsg CCD camera was used for the 3-hour exposure utilizing the Hubble Space Telescope colour palette, which imparts the vibrant hues.
Best Tripod-Mounted Unguided Photo
Winner: Stan Cholak of Andrew, Alberta, photographed a beautiful display of noctilucent clouds on July 1, 2011, from a location about 100 kilometres east of Edmonton using a Nikon D3S with a 24mm lens for a 5-second exposure. Noctilucent clouds are formed of ice crystals at altitudes of 75 to 85 kilometres, higher than any other clouds. They are most commonly seen in mid- to late June and early July from north of +50 degrees latitude.
Prize: TheSkyX Professional advanced astronomy software from Software Bisque.
Honourable Mention: John Hlynialuk of Owen Sound, Ontario, observed and recorded a very unusual aurora that lasted for less than 20 minutes on the evening of April 25, 2012, from near Oliphant, Ontario. The band of rays extended directly overhead and was captured with a 10mm f/2.8 lens on a Canon 50D; 20-second exposure at ISO 1250.