There's nothing particularly exotic about photographing an astronomical object through red, green, and blue filters — thousands of the world's amateur astronomers do that every night. But when the images are taken by a 64-megapixel CCD attached to a 2.2-m telescope high in the Chilean Andes, well, that's another story altogether.

It was only a few months ago that officials at the European Southern Observatory launched the "Hidden Treasures" project. They made available a huge cache of archived images just to see what creative astrophotographers could come up with. As an incentive, the contest included an all-expenses-paid trip to the ESO's Very Large Telescope for its first-place winner.

Refelction nebula M78

Russian astrophotographer combined red, green, and blue frames from a 2.2-m telescope to create this stunning view of Messier 78. The field of view is 33 arcminutes square. Click here for a larger view and here for a 16-megapixel version.

ESO / Igor Chekalin

That lucky individual is Igor Chekalin, an accomplished 30-something astrophotographer who lives in Taganrog, Russia. Chekalin's winning entry is a richly textured view of Messier 78, a reflection nebula located a few degrees northeast of Orion's Belt. He combined just a handful of frames to achieve the view seen here: five 3-minute red exposures and three each in blue and green.

Chekalin is no stranger to winning kudos and prizes for his astrophotography. But, as he explains, the biggest challenge was downloading and learning to use the professional software needed to deal with the enormous ESO image files. He stacked them using IRAF, did a white balance with Iris, and touched it up in Adobe Photoshop.

Emission/reflection nebula NGC 6729

A false-color view of NGC 6729, a beautiful nebula in Corona Australis. Click here for a larger view.

ESO / Sergey Stepanenko

Another Chekalin entry came in a close second in the judges' ranking: a rendering of the neighboring spiral galaxies NGC 3169 (adorned with supernova 2003cg) and NGC 3166.

The second-place prize went to Sergey Stepanenko from Ukraine. Other top-ten finishers include amateurs from Belgium, U.S.A., Argentina, Italy, United Kingdom, and Chile. Clearly, high-quality astrophotographers are found worldwide!

Chekalin won't be making his trip to Chile just yet. "ESO gave me an option to choose the date," he explains. "So I decided to go on autumn-winter (in the Northern Hemisphere)." Right now he's leaning toward finishing a deep-exposure mosaic of the Orion Nebula, along with the Large Magellanic Cloud and Eta Carinae — beloved deep-sky targets that he can record well with portable equipment.

Meanwhile, ESO organizers Olivier Hainaut and Oana Sandu were so impressed with the response to the 2010 competition (nearly 100 entries) that they're already planning a follow-up contest. So get ready for "Hidden Treasures 2011"!


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