A stargazer stands in awe as comet Lovejoy skims across the night sky over Australia last December. Officially known as C/2011 W3, the comet was predicted to dive into the sun and be destroyed. Instead the icy body survived its solar encounter and went on to offer Southern Hemisphere sky-watchers rare views of its bright tail in the predawn skies.
This fish-eye picture of Lovejoy won first place in the Third International Earth and Sky Photo Contest's "Beauty of the Night Sky" category, organizers announced last week. Founded by the World at Night (TWAN) and the Dark Skies Awareness project, the annual contest invites photographers to submit their best shots of landscape astrophotography—pictures that showcase both Earth and the sky—as well as images that capture the battle against light pollution.
Pictures were judged in two categories: "Beauty of the Night Sky" and "Against the Lights."
To capture this above image, photographer Jia Hao chased Lovejoy to a remote countryside outside Perth. With few housing options due to the holiday season, "I managed to survive for two days, alone, sleeping in a rental car and eating only bread," Hao told National Geographic News in an email.
"With all the money and efforts thrown into the chase, the comet didn't let me down," he added. "Alongside with the southern Milky Way, so bright it cast a shadow on the ground ... the view brought me to tears."
The city lights of Innsbruck pool like molten gold in the valleys of the Austrian Alps in last December. Photographer Norbert Span snapped the picture during a stargazing hike up to the summit of Patscherkofel mountain.
The picture won top honors in the "Against the Lights" category, which recognizes images that show "how important and amazing the starry sky is and how it affects our lives and also how bad the problem of light pollution has become," TWAN founder and contest judge Babak Tafreshi said in an email.
A long-exposure picture captures the stars wheeling over Tre Cime di Lavaredo, three peaks in the Dolomite mountain range, a UN World Heritage site in northeastern Italy. Lights from cars, meanwhile, trace the surrounding roadway.
According to contest judge Tafreshi, submissions to this year's contest had to have been taken since the start of 2011 and had to be in "TWAN style"—combining elements of the night sky as the backdrop to a notable location or landmark.
The 2012 contest saw nearly twice as many entries as the 2011 competition—roughly 600 total from photographers based in about 50 countries.
Photographer Luis Argerich was "captivated by the arch of the Milky Way mimicking the shape of the hills" when he took this picture from the Argentine countryside. The panorama also captures the white blobs of the Magellanic clouds, two satellite dwarf galaxies of the Milky Way—despite light pollution from nearby cities.
Today's digital cameras, combined with multiple astronomy-outreach programs, have spurred an increase in night-sky photography, according to contest judge Tafreshi.
"Unfortunately a majority of photographers who got interested in nightscape photography are less familiar with astronomy and the natural look and color of the night sky," he said. For instance, many pictures of the Milky Way submitted to the contest were disqualified because they presented the naturally pale yellow band of stars in vibrant blues, purples, and reds.
"If you publish a photo of a blue sunset, it's clear that either there is something badly wrong with your camera/processing, or you were the first human on Mars to see this view," Tafreshi said. "The real winner images are not those with exotic colors and saturation but the photos which were made in the right place at the right time to capture the scene."
Like arrows aimed at the heavens, the rocks of the Arctic Henge at Raufarhöfn, Iceland, stand silhouetted against brilliant auroras.
The monument is being built as something of a modern Stonehenge, with slabs of rock placed in astronomical alignments tied to the summer solstice. The overall design is based on the Old Norse poem Völuspá, or Prophecy of the Seeress. (See more Iceland pictures.)
Contest judge Tafreshi noted that this year saw an increase in aurora-picture submissions.
"Many of them were made during March 2012, with the suddenly increased solar activity [spurring more] auroras in high altitudes. As we approach the next solar maximum in spring 2013, the solar activity is gradually rising and causing more beautiful aurora activities." (See March aurora pictures.)
"By chance, this night the weather was very good, [with] just a sea of clouds above the Mafate [caldera]," said photographer Luc Perrot. "The shock was enormous when I saw for the first time the comet."
In addition to an influx of aurora shots, contest judge Tafreshi said, "this year we had many images of the great comet Lovejoy, which made a spectacular display in the southern skies during December 2011. Such bright comets appear once or twice each decade."
The moon illuminates frozen "sculptures" in a picture of the night sky seen from a snow-covered forest. Part of the familiar constellation Orion, the hunter, hangs in the sky near the tip of the foreground tree.
"Although the best equipment helps a lot, the secret key in nightscape photography is being in the right place at the right time," said contest judge Tafreshi.
Generally speaking, "knowledge of astronomy and sky-gazing together with an artistic point of view creates an enchanting landscape astrophoto which has both the beauty and science aspect."
A country road in Wyoming parallels the band of the Milky Way in a summertime shot by photographer Eric Hines. "Spending the nights under the stars in some of the most remote places in the U.S. is what keeps me going," Hines said in an email.
In general, TWAN founder Tafreshi said, "in Earth-and-sky photography we capture things which are mostly visible to unaided eyes, and the main effort is to show what was experienced by the eyes of photographer at the scene.
"I'm very pleased that our highly experienced judging team in the 2012 contest voted for more natural-looking images." (See more Milky Way pictures.)
A brilliant moon casts deep shadows over ancient ruins in Iran, while stars glitter overhead.
Along with promoting astronomy education and highlighting the issue of light pollution, "another important message of the contest comes to mind when viewing all the photos from across the globe showing the same sky—one single roof above all humanity," TWAN's Tafreshi said.
"Under this roof all nations are just one family in one home. The night sky is perhaps a bridge that can bring us all together."