Plasma arc is astronomy photograph of the year

A new feature found near the Andromeda Galaxy features in the winning photo in the Royal Observatory Greenwich’s well-known competition.
By | Published: September 16, 2023 | Last updated on September 18, 2023

A teal-colored plasma arc next to the iconic Andromeda Galaxy stole the show in this year’s Royal Observatory Greenwich’s Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, whose 2023 winners were announced this week. The dazzling image and overall winner of the competition, Andromeda, Unexpected, was taken by Marcel Drechsler, Xavier Strottner and Yann Sainty. 

“It’s an enormous honor for our team to receive this important award and we are grateful for all the support, friendship and encouragement we have received along our journey. It encourages us to continue to pursue our passion for astrophotography and, of course, research with dedication,” the winners said in a Royal Observatory Greenwich press release

Within one of the most observed and photographed areas in the night sky, the amateur astronomers captured a blue arc of ionized oxygen gas that was only discovered earlier this year. Scientists are now investigating the arc, dubbed Strottner-Drechsler-Sainty Object 1 (SDSO-1), as it could be the largest structure of its type so near to Earth. The winning image will be on display alongside other winners from other categories at the National Maritime Museum in London starting September 16.

Now in its 15th year, the competition features over 100 photographs of shimmering skies, the brilliant Moon, and vibrant stars. In total there are 11 categories, including Best Newcomer and Young Astronomy Photographer of the Year, as well as the subject categories: Galaxies, Aurorae, Our Moon, Our Sun, People and Space, Planets, Comets and Asteroids, Skyscapes, and Stars and Nebulae. 

Andromeda, Unexpected was named appropriately as the team did not expect to capture the plasma arc. “It was an absolute accident. No one expected to see it and that’s why it’s called Andromeda, Unexpected, because we wanted to take a beautiful image of the Andromeda Galaxy. And we looked at the first data and we spotted this hazy smudge on the edge of the image,” said Drechsler. Initially, the team thought the smudge was distortion or scattered light. 

The award-winning image took over 22 nights, 110 hours of data, and various filters and exposure times to capture. “This astrophoto is as spectacular as [it is] valuable. It not only presents Andromeda in a new way, but also raises the quality of astrophotography to a higher level,” said judge and astrophotographer, in the release. 

While the overall winner also gained the top spot in the Galaxies category, here is a list of winners in the other fields.


Brushstroke © Monika Deviat

An abstract aurora in the shape of a brushstroke. Unusually, the photographer decided to photograph the aurora in isolation.

Taken with a Nikon D850 camera, 14 mm f/2.8, ISO 3200, 4-second exposure.

Location: Utsjoki, Lapland, Finland

Our Moon

Mars-Set © Ethan Chappel

An occultation of Mars that took place on 8 December 2022. During the occultation, the Moon passes in front of the planet Mars, allowing the astrophotographer to capture both objects together. The image shows Mars behind the Moon’s southern side in impressive detail.

Taken with a Celestron EdgeHD 14 telescope, iOptron CEM70 mount, Astro-Physics BARADV lens, ZWO ASI462MC camera, 7,120 mm f/20, multiple 15-millisecond exposures.

Location: Cibolo, Texas, USA

Our Sun

A Sun Question © Eduardo Schaberger Poupeau

A photograph of the Sun with a huge filament in the shape of a question mark. Solar filaments are arcs of plasma in the Sun’s atmosphere given shape by magnetic fields. The photo is a mosaic of two panels.

Taken with a Sky-Watcher Evostar 150ED DX Doublet APO refractor telescope, Daystar Quark Chromosphere filter, Baader ERF frontal filter, iOptron CEM70G mount, Player One Apollo-M Max camera, Gain 100, 840 mm focal length 120 mm aperture, 2 panels of 115 x 3.47-millisecond exposures.

Location: Rafaela, Santa Fe, Argentina

People & Space

Zeila © Vikas Chander

The most northerly part of Namibia’s Atlantic facing coast is one of the most treacherous coastlines in the world and has gained the name the Skeleton Coast. 

The ship in this photo, Zeila, was stranded on 25 August 2008 and is still in a well-preserved state. The image shows the delicate colours of different star types.

Taken with a Nikon D850 camera, 135 mm f/2.8, ISO 200, 30-minute exposure.

Location: Heintesbaai (Henties Bay), Erongo Region, Namibia


Grand Cosmic Fireworks © Angel An

Sprites are an extremely rare phenomenon of atmospheric luminescence that appear like fireworks. An took this photograph from the highest ridge of the Himalaya mountains. 

Taken with a Sony ILCE-7S3 camera, 135 mm f/1.8, ISO 12800, 4-second exposure

Location: Lake Puma Yumco, Tibet, China

Stars & Nebulae

New Class of Galactic Nebulae Around the Star YY Hya © Marcel Drechsler

A team of amateur astronomers, led by Marcel Drechsler from Germany and Xavier Strottner from France, were able to make an important contribution to the study of the evolution of binary star systems: on old images of sky surveys, they discovered a previously unknown galactic nebula. At its centre, a pair of stars surrounded by a common envelope was found. On over 100 nights, more than 360 hours of exposure time were collected. The result shows an ultra-deep stellar remnant that the team has baptised ‘the heart of the Hydra’.

Taken with an ASA Newtonian 500 mm telescope, ASA DDM85 mount, FLI ProLine 16803 camera, 1,900 mm f/3.8, 890 x 1,200-second exposures, 672 x 300-second exposures and 15 x 1,800-second exposures

Location: Ovalle, Chile

The Sir Patrick Moore Prize for Best Newcomer

Sh2-132: Blinded by the Light © Aaron Wilhelm

The Sh2-132 complex lies near the border of the Cepheus and Lacerta constellations and contains multiple deep sky structures. The photograph includes 70 hours of data, the rich interplay of all the gasses reveals something different each time you look at it.

Taken with a William Optics Fluorostar132 mm telescope, Chroma 3 nm/50 mm SII/H-alpha/OIII filters, Astro-Physics Mach2GTO mount, ZWO ASI6200MM Pro camera, 910 mm f/6.9, SII: 87 x 900-second exposures; H-alpha: 92 x 900-second exposures; OIII: 87 x 900-second exposures, 66 hours and 30 minutes total exposure

Location: Santa Monica, California, USA

Young Astronomy Photographer of the year

The Running Chicken Nebula © Runwei Xu and Binyu Wang

The Running Chicken Nebula, IC2944, is located in the constellation of Centaurus, 6,000 light-years away from Earth. Embedded in the nebula’s glowing gas the star cluster Collinder 249 is visible.

Taken with an ASA N20 f/3.8 Newtonian telescope, ASA DDM85 mount, FLI Proline 16803 camera, 1,900 mm f/3.8, 5.5 hours total exposure

Location: El Sauce Observatory, Río Hurtado, Chile

Annie Maunder Prize for Image Innovation 

Black Echo © John White

Taking audio source material from NASA’s Chandra Sonification Project, White visually captured the sound of the black hole at the center of the Perseus Galaxy.

The audio was played through a speaker onto which White attached a petri dish, blacked out at the bottom and then filled with about 3 mm of water. Using a macro lens and halo light in a dark room, White experimented with the audio and volumes to explore the various patterns made in the liquid.

Original data from the NASA Chandra X-Ray Observatory, May 2022. 

Runners-up and highly commended