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Astrophotography: Searching Data For Hidden Treasures

You know those dramatic, colorful outer-space photos you see from NASA? Turns out they're not photographs in the traditional sense; i.e., there's no photographer in an observatory composing the frame with a really good lighting kit. It's all done on the back end — on a computer — and it's a lot of work.

  • The Orion Nebula, or Messier 42, is a huge complex of gas and dust where massive stars are forming. It is the closest such region to Earth.
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    The Orion Nebula, or Messier 42, is a huge complex of gas and dust where massive stars are forming. It is the closest such region to Earth.
    ESO/Igor Chekalin/Courtesy European Southern Observatory
  • NGC 3521, a large spiral galaxy is located 36 million light-years from Earth.
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    NGC 3521, a large spiral galaxy is located 36 million light-years from Earth.
    ESO/Oleg Maliy/Courtesy European Southern Observatory
  • NGC3582, a nebula that sits inside of the star forming region RCW57. The loops of ionized gas are expelled by dying stars.
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    NGC3582, a nebula that sits inside of the star forming region RCW57. The loops of ionized gas are expelled by dying stars.
    ESO/Joseph DePasquale/Courtesy European Southern Observatory
  • The moon.
    ESO/Andy Strappazzon/Courtesy European Southern Observatory
  • NGC1850, a double cluster in the Large Magellanic Cloud, is a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way.
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    NGC1850, a double cluster in the Large Magellanic Cloud, is a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way.
    ESO/Sergey Stepanenko/Courtesy European Southern Observatory
  • NGC2217, a barred spiral galaxy located at about 60 million light-years from Earth, has an active nucleus which indicates a giant black hole lurking at its center.
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    NGC2217, a barred spiral galaxy located at about 60 million light-years from Earth, has an active nucleus which indicates a giant black hole lurking at its center.
    ESO/Oleg Maliy/Courtesy European Southern Observatory
  • Haffner 18, an open cluster of young stars, is surrounded by a dense shell of hydrogen. It is approximately 2.5 light-years wide and is expanding at a speed of 20 kilometers per second.
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    Haffner 18, an open cluster of young stars, is surrounded by a dense shell of hydrogen. It is approximately 2.5 light-years wide and is expanding at a speed of 20 kilometers per second.
    ESO/Josh Barrington/Courtesy European Southern Observatory
  • The nebula Messier78, a reflection nebula in the constellation Orion.
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    The nebula Messier78, a reflection nebula in the constellation Orion.
    ESO/Igor Chekalin/Courtesy European Southern Observatory
  • The NGC3169 and NGC3166 galaxies are gravitationally bound to each other.
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    The NGC3169 and NGC3166 galaxies are gravitationally bound to each other.
    ESO/Igor Chekalin/Courtesy European Southern Observatory
  • Trumpler 14 is an open cluster located 8,000 light-years away inside the Carina Nebula.
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    Trumpler 14 is an open cluster located 8,000 light-years away inside the Carina Nebula.
    ESO/Adam Kiil/Courtesy European Southern Observatory

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A recent public astrophotography competition, "Hidden Treasures," hosted by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), allowed amateur astronomers to scour its vast astronomical data archives for "cosmo imagery" worthy of the public eye. The challenge was to turn raw telescope images into what we know as "space photos."

The winning images of nebulas, Magellanic Clouds and romantically named celestial objects such as NG3582, are undoubtedly beautiful. The most impressive part of this competition, though, might actually be the explanation of the process of astrophotography processing (here come the nerdy details):

Data produced by telescopes are gray-scale images obtained through colored filters. Processing the images requires the elimination of "unwanted signatures of the instrument" or extraneous data in the image that actually isn't in the sky — it comes from either electricity or the telescope itself. Images are then combined to increase detail or range of view, and finally the images are "colorized" consistently with the filter that used when the image was taken.

Easy, right?

"We were completely taken aback both by the quantity and the quality of the images that were submitted," said Lars Lindberg Christensen, Head of ESO's education and Public Outreach Department. "This was not a challenge for the faint-hearted, requiring both an advanced knowledge of data processing and an artistic eye. We are thrilled to have discovered so many talented people."

The winner of the competition, Igor Chekalin, won a trip to Paranal, Chile, where ESO's creatively named "Very Large Telescope" is located.

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