The brilliant Comet Leonard put on a mesmerizing performance late last year when it streaked across the sky on Christmas Day. Expelled from the solar system shortly after, the celestial matter captivated photographers around the world during its brief stint of visibility, including Gerald Rhemann who captured the illuminated body as its gas tail disconnected from its nucleus and was swept away by solar wind. The incredibly rare and brief event also garnered Rhemann the top prize in this year’s Astronomy Photographer of the Year contest.
Hosted by the Royal Observatory Greenwich, the 14th-annual competition received more than 3,000 entries from 67 countries. This year’s collection includes a glowing, avian-like aurora over Murmansk Oblast and the International Space Station as it flies over the Apollo 11 moon-landing site—the latter was taken by Andrew McCarthy, whose galactic photos have been featured multiple times on Colossal.
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An International Photo Competition Illuminates the Captivating and Remarkable Sights of Earth’s Landscapes
From the brilliant dancing aurora of Iceland to Comet NeoWise hurtling above Mount Tamalpais, the winning shots of the 2021 International Landscape Photographer of the Year contest capture a diverse and captivating array of Earth’s topographies and phenomena. The annual competition is in its eighth year and garnered more than 4,500 entries centered on a variety of subject matter, including a mystical wood at Alcornocales Natural Park in Cadiz, the fairytale-esque flowers of France’s Vallée de la Clarée, and a wildlife fire in Yosemite National Park that appears more like a sunset on the horizon than massive blaze.
We’ve included our favorites from the 101 winners below, and you can see the entire collection on the contest’s site. For a deeper dive into the stories behind the photos, pick up a copy of the 2021 book.
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Set against a star-studded backdrop, Comet Leonard, aka the Chrismas Comet, blazed overhead on December 26, emitting a colorful stream of light that illuminated the dark skies. Andrew McCarthy (previously) documented the celestial body as it hurtled over the Arizona horizon and created this striking, magnified composite of 25 separate shots. The image, along with a wider photo shown below, captures the brilliant colors surrounding the nucleus as it flies 150,000 miles per hour through space. Comet Leonard was first spotted about 466 million miles away on January 3, 2021, and is making its closest pass to the sun exactly one year later, before it’s expelled from our solar system entirely.
McCarthy details his 12-minute process for documenting the body on PetaPixel—watch this clip to see how far the comet moved during that period—and explore his wide range of astrophotography on Instagram and his site, where he also sells prints.
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Throughout July, Comet NEOWISE has been visible to those in the northern hemisphere as it orbits the sun. Portland-based photographer Lester Tsai recently traveled to Mount Hood to capture the phenomena as it shoots over Oregon’s highest mountain in a remarkable set of images. One of the brightest comets in decades, NEOWISE won’t make another appearance in the inner solar system for 6,800 years.
Tsai recounted the experience, describing the necessary preparation and the efforts to determine the frozen object’s probable visibility. “The comet changes position each day but when I mapped it out, it looked like there was a good chance it would do what I needed it to. I had never been there (Mount Hood National Forest) before but was excited to check it out,” he shares with Colossal. Location is crucial for astrophotography, but factors like weather, the sun’s position, and the moon’s cycle have an effect, too. Light pollution from a nearby municipality also can brighten the sky too much for a clear shot.
After traveling through a dense forest in the middle of the night, Tsai found his spot on a nearby cliff and set up his equipment. “Based on the rough directional data I had, I knew the comet would rise to the left side of the mountain and make its way up and to the right. Because this was such an unprecedented and possibly once in a lifetime event, I decided to use one of my cameras to shoot a timelapse,” Tsai says.
He expected the comet to arrive around 2 a.m., and after waiting and worrying he’d missed it, NEOWISE finally made its appearance an hour later. “As the night went on, the sky began to slowly brighten and saturate with beautiful colors on the horizon. 3 a.m. passed, and as 4 a.m. arrived, the comet was almost directly over the mountain,” Tsai says. Thanks to his patience, the photographer was able to capture the fleeting body as it descends in the star-speckled sky.
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Editor's Picks: Craft
Highlights below. For the full collection click here.