The European Southern Observatory (ESO) has announced the winners of its Hidden Treasures astrophotography contest. Hidden Treasures asks amateur astronomers with an artistic bent (or artists with an astronomic bent) to take the raw, greyscale data from ESO’s archives and do what ESO hires a team of professionals to do: Translate that data into gorgeous images of the universe. We’ve compiled a gallery of a few of our favorites, and trust us, these are as good as any professional efforts we’ve seen.

This kind of imaging is no easy task; the amateur entrants had to scour the ESO’s many terabytes of data just to find an image that would, with proper processing and artistic recreation, yield something we’d want to look at. And that’s all before the actual processing, which entails an awful lot of correcting, sharpening, and adjusting for the limits of the telescopes’ images. There aren’t really any restrictions, short of manually painting in images–any number or type of filters, combination of frames, and enhancements are allowed. Processing these kinds of images is highly difficult, requiring the use of complicated professional tools like Scisoft to combine and process the different shots, but also fairly open–you can see in the Flickr compendium that there are a few different takes on the same “scene,” so to speak.

The ESO got about 80 entries (all of which you can see on Flickr), which is actually pretty impressive considering the high level of difficulty involved in the project. You can’t just snag a photo, insert some colors with Photoshop, and call it a day–this work requires an intense level of commitment and effort. The grand prize is a trip to the ESO’s Very Large Telescope, located in Paranal, Chile, with runners-up rewarded with iPods, a model of the Telescope, and various space-related books. The grand prize winner is pictured above–congratulations to Igor Chekalin of Russia, who we’re sure is looking forward to his trip to Chile!

Click to launch our favorite astrophotography from the Hidden Treasures competition.

[ESO via Wired]

Orion Nebula: Messier 78

“Hidden Treasures,” the European Southern Observatory’s 2010 astrophotography contest, gave stargazing enthusiasts the chance to mine ESO archives for telescopic images, all in grayscale. Those up to the challenge edited and enhanced this raw data to reveal colorful glimpses of our universe. Over 100 images were submitted by amateur astronomers. This winning entry from Igor Chekalin earned him a trip to the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Paranal, Chile.

Lagoon Nebula

Orion Nebula: Messier 42

Messier 74

Emission Nebula

Taurus Nebula

Messier 8 Lagoon Nebula