Astronomy Photographer of the Year Shortlist Includes Sacramento, Mountain View Stargazers

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The California Nebula, as captured by Michigan-based astrophotographer Terry Hancock, in his photo, 'California Dreamin' NGC 1499'. The image has been shortlisted for the Astonomy Photographer of the Year Award.
The California Nebula, as captured by Michigan-based astrophotographer Terry Hancock, in his photo, 'California Dreamin' NGC 1499'. The image has been shortlisted for the Astonomy Photographer of the Year Award. (Terry Hancock/ DownUnderObservatory.com)

Two Northern California astrophotographers have been shortlisted for the prestigious Astronomy Photographer of the Year Award. The prize, organized by the Royal Observatory Greenwich in England and open to photographers from around the world, comes with an award of £10,000 (about $14,000). The shortlisted images, chosen from over 4,500 entries from 75 countries, will be displayed this month in London's National Maritime Museum. The winner will be announced on Sept. 16.

Sacramento astrophotographer Andrew McCarthy was shortlisted for a piece titled The Magnetic Field of our Active Sun. McCarthy told the Royal Observatory: "This image shows how the magnetic field pulls up portions of the chromosphere following a large solar flare, with the magnetic field lines on crystal clear display along the limb in Hydrogen-Alpha light." On Instagram, he described the image simply as, "Our star caught in a vulnerable moment."

'The Magnetic Field of our Active Sun' by Sacramento photographer Andrew McCarthy.
'The Magnetic Field of our Active Sun' by Sacramento photographer Andrew McCarthy. (Instagram/ @cosmic_background)

McCarthy, who was born and raised in California's capital, recently left a career in software to pursue astrophotography full-time. He says his love of space initially began in childhood, inspired by his father's telescope. "Nowadays," he tells KQED, "my peers inspire me. They remind me there is always more to learn and there is an infinite amount of growth potential in [astrophotography]."

Also shortlisted for the prize is Mountain View resident Marcin Zając. It's the third year in a row that Zając has been selected, this time for his stunning Alien Throne photograph, seen below.

'Alien Throne' by Marcin Zając.
'Alien Throne' by Marcin Zając. (Instagram/ @mrcnzajac)

Zając took the ethereal shot in the San Juan Basin of New Mexico, during a mid-pandemic camping trip to "the most remote areas" he'd ever visited on American soil. Zając, who is originally from Warsaw, Poland, described his image to the Royal Observatory as "an otherworldly rock spire (also known as a hoodoo), ris[ing] out of the badlands, forming a perfect foreground to the Milky Way galaxy above."

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Zając added on Instagram: "The bright objects to the left of the hoodoo are the planetary duo of Jupiter and Saturn which were unusually close that night."

Zając, who works in tech, has lived in the Bay Area for eight years. He says that the coastline between San Francisco and Big Sur is one of his favorite places to shoot. "First and foremost, I am inspired by nature and beautiful landscapes," he tells KQED. "Luckily, the greater Bay Area is a great place for photography." As for the shortlist, Zając adds, "Winning the competition would be a huge honor. I'm actually honored just to be nominated."

McCarthy, too, looks forward to the September results. "A win would be a huge personal accomplishment, and make me feel validated and accepted among the astrophotography community," he tells KQED. "I would feel extraordinarily humbled if my work was chosen over all the incredible work of my peers."

The full collection of shortlisted photographs can be seen on the Royal Museums Greenwich website now.