The winning photographs from this year's Astronomy Photographer of the Year Competition were just announced, and they are incredible. Here are our favorites from this year's awardees.
Hosted by London's Royal Museums Greenwich, this year's competition attracted upwards of 800 entries from astrophotographers the world over. Categories included "Earth and Space," "Our Solar System," "Deep Space," "Young astronomy photographer" and a smattering of special prizes, including "Best Newcomer" and "People and Space."
Included below are our hand-picked selections from each category, including overall winners, runners-up, and numerous honorable mentions. While all of the photos recognized in this year's competition are stunning, we found these to be the most impressive — but don't let that keep you from judging for yourself. The Royal Museums Greenwich's website is loaded with amazing content, including many more astrophotographs, image descriptions, and articles on how to capture your own photos of the cosmos. Check it out here.
Images and captions via The Royal Museums Greenwich | Photographer info is listed below each image
NGC 6960 – The Witch's Broom | Highly Commended - Deep Space | Photographed by Robert Franke
Part of the Veil Nebula, the ‘Witch's Broom' is the glowing debris from a supernova explosion – the violent death of a massive star. Although the supernova occurred several thousand years ago, the gaseous debris is still expanding outwards, producing this vast cloud-like structure.
The Milky Way View from the Piton de l'Eau, Réunion Island | Highly Commended - Earth and Space | Photographed by Luc Perrot
This is a spectacular view of the Milky Way arching over a tranquil lake on the island of Réunion. The bright patch to the left of the image marks the bulge of stars at the heart of our galaxy. However, our view of the centre is blocked by thick clouds of interstellar dust which are clearly visible in this image.
Transit of Venus 2012 in Hα | Winner - Our Solar System | Photographed by Chris Warren
In previous centuries, careful observations of transits of Venus were used to make the first accurate measurement of the distance between the Earth and the Sun. Expeditions were sent out around the globe to ensure that at least some observers would avoid the curse of cloudy skies. This image, taken from London in 2012, sums up the anxious excitement of transit chasers throughout history: miss it and you may have to wait more than a century until the next one!
M51 – The Whirlpool Galaxy | Winner - Deep Space | Photographed by Martin Pugh
M51 or the Whirlpool is the archetypal spiral galaxy and for centuries astronomers have studied it in order to understand how galaxies form and evolve. Here the photographer has made use of exceptionally stable atmospheric conditions, minimising the twinkling or ‘seeing' caused by air turbulence to produce a sharp, clear image in which every detail of the galaxy is visible.
M51 has been drawn and photographed many times, from the sketches of astronomer Lord Rosse in the 19th century to modern studies by the Hubble Space Telescope. This photograph is a worthy addition to that catalogue. It combines fine detail in the spiral arms with the faint tails of light that show how M51's small companion galaxy is being torn apart by the gravity of its giant neighbour.
Star Icefall | Winner - Earth and Space | Photographed by Masahiro Miyasaka
Orion, Taurus and the Pleiades form the backdrop to this eerie frozen landscape. Though the stars appear to gleam with a cold, frosty light, bright-blue stars like the Pleiades can be as hot as 30,000 degrees Celsius. Cooler orange stars such as Betelgeuse and Aldebaran are still a scorching 3500 degrees Celsius.
Summer Nights in Michigan | Highly Commended - Earth and Space | Photographed by Michael A. Rosinksi
Earthly and heavenly sources of light are contrasted in this long-exposure image. Up in the sky, the rotation of the Earth draws the stars out into neat concentric trails, while down on the ground the swarming of fireflies creates a more frenzied pattern.
Venus-Jupiter Close Conjunction | Winner - People and Space | Photographed by Laurent Laveder
The conjunction of Venus and Jupiter, when the two bright planets appeared conspicuously close together in the sky, was one of the astronomical highlights of 2012. Their apparent closeness was an optical illusion – Jupiter was in fact millions of kilometres further away than Venus. This picture also nicely demonstrates a stargazing tip: astronomers often use red torches to find their way about in the dark as these help to preserve their night vision.
Daytime Lunar Mosaic | Runner-up - Young Astronomy Photographer | Laurent V. Joli-Coeur (aged 15)
This young photographer has knitted together several high resolution images of the Moon in the daytime sky to form a colourful mosaic. The wonderfully detailed view shows the smooth dark maria (lunar ‘seas') and lighter, bumpier highlands of the Moon, both dotted with craters. The peaceful blue colour of the daytime sky is caused by scattering of blue light in the Earth's atmosphere.