After pouring over a record 1,700 entries, the Royal Observatory has announced the winners of its annual Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition. Without a doubt, these are some of the most awe-inspiring space-themed images we've ever seen.
Top image: "Lost Souls" by Julie Fletcher. The photograph was a runner up in the People and Space category.
This is the winner of the Earth and Space category.
The pale-green glow of the aurora comes from oxygen atoms high in the atmosphere, energized by subatomic particles blasted out by the Sun. The particles are funnelled down towards the north and south poles by the Earth's magnetic field, which is why these spectacular light shows are so often juxtaposed with the frozen scenery of the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Here the photographer has skilfully captured the delicate, icy colouration of land, water and sky.
Runner up in the Earth and Space category.
A monochrome composition with striking graphic qualities, this is a picture of movement. It shows the power of the wind together with the apparent motion of the sky: the rotation of the Earth turns the trails into a shower of stars. Like a moment of stillness captured in the otherwise shifting surroundings, one of the wind turbines has remained static. Its sharply defined blades stand out among the dandelion-like shapes of the others.
This highly commended photo was
taken from a high-altitude balloon, 26,500 m above and west of Denver, Colorado, after being launched from Boulder. The Moon only became visible when the balloon had cleared the bright haze of our atmosphere and entered the thin air of the stratosphere.
A highly commended photo in the Earth and Space category.
Using High Dynamic Range (HDR) the photographer balances the brightness of the rising Moon and much more distant planet Venus, to show us what happens when they come to the same apparent position in the sky. Venus is temporarily hidden from view by our nearest neighbour, only to re-emerge in less than one hour. This underscores the relatively quick apparent motion of the Moon through our skies as it makes its 27.3-day orbit around the Earth. Such spectacular occultations can be seen from somewhere on Earth several times a year but careful planning is required to photograph them.
Another highly commended photo
A total solar eclipse is one of nature's greatest spectacles so it is no wonder that many people will go to extreme lengths just to experience one. Down on the ground the period of totality, when the Moon completely blocks the Sun, lasts for just a few minutes. Bad weather can completely wreck your chances of seeing it. This is where a plane can come in handy: you can fly above the clouds and chase the Moon's shadow as it races across the Earth.
This is the winner of the Our Solar System category.
The Sun's boiling surface curves away beneath us in this evocative shot, which powerfully conveys the scale and violence of our parent star. The tortured region of solar activity on the left could swallow up the Earth several times with room to spare. The photographer's comparison with stones dropped into a pond is an apt one: the Sun's outer layers do indeed behave like a fluid, but one that is constantly twisted and warped by intense magnetic forces.
Runner up Our Solar System.
The word 'crater' was first coined in the 17th century by the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei. He derived it from 'krater', the Ancient Greek term for a vessel used for mixing water and wine. Formed by meteorite impacts over billions of years, these bowl-shaped lunar features are typically named after scientists, artists and explorers. The central peak of the large crater featured here probably formed when the rocks of the crater floor rebounded immediately after it was formed.
Highly commended in Our Solar System. That branched solar prominence measures 800,000 miles (1.3 million km).
'Calcium K' refers to a very specific wavelength of violet light emitted by calcium ions in extreme environments such the Sun's atmosphere. By imaging the Sun only in this very narrow colour range, astronomers can isolate evidence of extreme events, such as this colossal prominence rising off the solar surface.
Highly commended in Our Solar System.
Many features of the Sun only become apparent during a total eclipse, when the Moon blocks the dazzlingly bright solar disc from view. Here we see the Sun's outer atmosphere, or corona, as a diffuse white haze. Closer in, the layer of the Sun's atmosphere known as the chromosphere appears in the red light of hydrogen. The photographer has caught the moment when a tiny part of the Sun's disc shines out between the mountains on the edge of the Moon, creating an effect known as the 'diamond ring'.
Winner of the Deep Space category.
The Horsehead Nebula is one of the most-photographed objects in the night sky, but this astonishing image succeeds in showing it in a brand-new light. Rather than focusing solely on the black silhouette of the horsehead itself, the photographer draws the eye down to the creased and folded landscape of gas and dust at its base, and across to the glowing cavity surrounding a bright star. By pushing the compositional boundaries of astrophotography, this image expands our view and tells a new story about a familiar object.
Runner up in the Deep Space category.
Looking like a giant eye peering across 700 light years of space, the Helix Nebula is one of the closest planetary nebulae to the Earth, and one of the best-studied. This highly accomplished image reveals delicate detail in the glowing gas that makes up the nebula, including the tadpole-like 'cometary knots' which seem to trail from the inner edge of the gaseous ring. The 'head' of each knot is around the size of our solar system.
Highly commended, Deep Space.
Known since ancient times as the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades Cluster, to the right of this image, actually consists of around a thousand stars which formed together about 100 million years ago. The Pleiades are a perennial favourite of amateur astronomers and astrophotographers, but this unusual view shows the cluster in the broader context of its local environment, drifting through a chaotic region of dark dust. The California Nebula, named for its resemblance to the US state, is the cloud of glowing hydrogen gas to the left of the image.
Highly commended, Deep Space.
The angular shapes and garish colour palette help to convey the violent origins of this gaseous structure, part of the debris of an exploding star, which detonated over 5000 years ago. The glowing relic is still expanding, and the entire nebula now covers an area of the sky about 36 times larger than the full Moon.
Highly commended, Deep Space.
Images like this one remind us that there is often more going on in our galaxy than meets the eye, and that the space between the stars is rarely completely empty. The extremely long 18-hour exposure brings out billowing dust and gas clouds that are normally overshadowed by their more glamorous neighbour at the top of the image, the dazzling heart of the Orion Nebula. The scatter of bright blue stars illuminate the dust, enabling us to see it.
Winner of the Young Astronomy Photographer of the Year.
This is a superb image of the Horsehead Nebula. It shows clearly the well-known red glow that appears to come from behind the horsehead. This glow is produced by hydrogen gas that has been ionized by neighbouring stars. The image draws particular attention to the cloud of heavily concentrated dust within the horse's head. This is silhouetted against the red glow because it blocks so much of the light that is trying to get through.
Winner of The Sir Patrick Moore Prize for Best Newcomer.
'Deep time' seems to be the subliminal message of this moody scene, with each layer of the foreground rocks recording thousands of years of geological history. Meanwhile, in the sky, time and distance are inextricably entwined, as the light from the stars takes decades, centuries or even millennia to reach us across the immense gulf of space.
Winner of the People and Space category.
This rare example of a hybrid solar eclipse began at sunrise over the western Atlantic as an annular eclipse, in which the Moon does not entirely block the Sun, leaving a bright ring or annulus uncovered. As the Moon's shadow swept eastwards across the ocean, the eclipse became total, with the whole of the Sun concealed from view. By the time the eclipse reached Kenya the Sun was once again emerging from behind the Moon, producing this spectacular crescent shape at sunset.
Winner of Robotic Scope.
The photographer says:
This is a very deep image of NGC 3718, taken from the Doc Greiner Research Observatory (DGRO), which is one of several remote observatories at Rancho Hidalgo, New Mexico. The luminance data was collected over two full nights of excellent seeing. Aladin Sky Atlas calculates over 5000 galaxies in this photo, down to 24th magnitude.
Found in the constellation Ursa Major, [it] is known as a peculiar barred spiral galaxy. Gravitational interactions with its near neighbour NGC 3729 (the spiral galaxy below and to the left) are the likely reason for the galaxy's significantly warped spiral arms, while a dark dust lane wraps around the centre.
More at Royal Museums Greenwhich.