For four years now, London’s Royal Museums Greenwich has invited astronomy-minded shutterbugs to share their very best photographs of the night sky and the universe beyond it. Teaming with “Sky at Night” magazine, they recognize excellence in various different categories, including “Earth and Space,” “Our Solar System,” “Deep Space,” and “Young Astronomy Photographer.” Now they’ve revealed the winners and runners up, and there are some flat-out stunning images on display.
Here are some of our favorites, including descriptions of what the image shows. There are plenty more, and different sizes of these, over at the official website.
“M51 – The Whirlpool Galaxy” by Martin Pugh (UK/Australia) — Winner, Overall & Deep Space
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” by Masahiro Miyasaka (Japan) — Winner, Earth and Space
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.
“Transit of Venus 2012 in Hydrogen-Alpha” by Chris Warren (UK) — Winner, Our Solar System
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!
“Simeis 147 Supernova Remnant” by Rogelio Bernal Andreo (USA) — Runner up, Deep Space
Straddling the constellations of Auriga and Taurus, Simeis 147 is a supernova remnant, the expanding debris of a massive star which exploded around 40,000 years ago. As the wreckage continues to spread out into space it collides violently with the dust and gas between the stars, sculpting it into the glowing shells and filaments which have earned Simeis 147 the nickname of the ‘Spaghetti Nebula.’
“NGC 6960 – The Witch’s Broom” by Robert Franke (USA) — Highly Commended, Deep Space
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.
“Pleiades Cluster” by Jacob von Chorus (Canada), aged 15 — Winner, Young Astronomy Photographer
Among the nearest star clusters to Earth, the Pleiades are easily seen with the naked eye in the northern hemisphere’s winter skies. While they are often called the Seven Sisters, this beautiful photograph reveals many more of the hot, young stars which comprise the cluster. The young photographer has also captured the swirling wisps of a diaphanous gas cloud through which the cluster is currently passing, lighting it with reflected starlight.
“Elephant’s Trunk with Ananas” by Lóránd Fényes (Hungary) — Best Newcomer
The Elephant’s Trunk seems to uncoil from the dusty nebula on the right of the image, its tip curled around a cavity carved out by the radiation produced by young stars. Capturing a deep sky object like this takes skill and painstaking attention to detail.
“Venus-Jupiter Close Conjunction by Laurent Laveder (France) — Winner, People and Space
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.