31 award-winning astronomy photos: From fiery horizons to whimsical auroras

An unexpected and astonishing find located more than 2.5 million light-years from Earth took top honors at the Royal Observatory Greenwich’s Astronomy Photographer of the Year awards this week. Amateur astronomers Marcel Drechsler, Xavier Strottner, and Yann Sainty captured an image of a massive plasma arc near the Andromeda Galaxy, a discovery that has resulted in scientists looking closer into the giant gas cloud.

“This astrophoto is as spectacular as [it is] valuable,” judge and astrophotographer László Francsics said in a press release. “It not only presents Andromeda in a new way, but also raises the quality of astrophotography to a higher level.”

[Related: How to get a great nightsky shot]

While “Andromeda, Unexpected” captured the prestigious overall winner title, other category winners also dazzled with photos of dancing auroras, neon sprites raining down from the night’s sky, and stunning far-off nebulas that might make you feel like a tiny earthling floating through space.

Sit back and scroll in awe at all the category winners, runners-up, and highly commended images from the 2023 Royal Observatory Greenwich’s Astronomy Photographer of the Year honorees.

Galaxy

Overall winner: Andromeda, Unexpected

A team of amateur astronomers led by Marcel Drechsler, Xavier Strottner, and Yann Sainty made a surprising discovery−a huge plasma arc next to the Andromeda Galaxy. Scientists are now investigating the newly discovered giant in a transnational collaboration. It could be the largest such structure in the nearby environment in the Universe. The Andromeda Galaxy is the closest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way. It is undoubtedly one of the most photographed deep-sky objects ever. The new discovery of such a large structure in the immediate vicinity of the galaxy was all the more surprising. Photo: Marcel Drechsler, Xavier Strottner, and Yann Sainty

Runner-Up: The Eyes Galaxies

Eyes Galaxies and dust swirls in space
The Eyes Galaxies (NGC 4438) are the famous interacting galaxies in the Virgo Cluster. They’re small and require a large telescope to reveal their many components, such as the dust in the middle and the tiny flares on the left and right. Those tiny details have rarely been revealed on other amateur images. Photo: Weitang Liang

Highly Commended: Neighbors

Three galleries shimmer among stars
A deep-space photograph showing galaxies NGC 5078 and IC879, to the left, and NGC 5101 on the right. The detailed image captures the hazy dust of the galaxies clearly. Photo: Paul Montague

Aurora

Winner: Brushstroke

A green aurora like a ribbon in the sky
An abstract aurora in the shape of a brushstroke. Unusually, the photographer decided to photograph the aurora in isolation. Photo: Monika Deviat

Runner-up: Circle of Light

Green aurora encircling a mountain and lake
A stunning photograph of a vivid aurora over Skagsanden beach, Lofoten Islands, Norway. The mountain in the background is Hustinden, which the aurora appears to encircle. Photo: Andreas Ettl

Highly Commended: Fire on the Horizon

Yellow pink and red aurora over a small building
New Zealand regularly has auroras, but due to its distance from the magnetic pole they are often not particularly vibrant for observers. With to the increased solar activity the region saw this year, the photographer was able to capture a highly colorful aurora over Birdlings Flat, New Zealand. Photo: Chester Hall-Fernandez 

Our Moon

Winner: Mars-Set

Closeup of the moon with mars peeking out behind smaller
An occultation of Mars that took place on December 8, 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. Photo: Ethan Chappel

Runner-Up: Sundown on the Terminator

Mars photo
The Plato Crater is an almost perfectly circular crater that measures 109 kilometes in diameter. This photograph was taken during a local lunar sunset in the last quarter, when approximately half of the moon’s face is visible from Earth. The image captures dramatic shadows moving across the moon. Photo: Tom Williams

Highly Commended: Last Full Moon of the Year Featuring a Colourful Corona During a Close Encounter with Mars

Full moon with an iridescent ring
A photograph of the last full moon of 2022 immersed in clouds. The colourful ring surrounding the moon is a lunar corona, which occurs when moonlight is diffracted though water droplets in the Earth’s atmosphere. Mars can just be seen to the right of the moon, appearing as a small orange dot. Photo: Miguel Claro

Our Sun

Winner: A Sun Question

Plasma on sun's surface
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. Photo: Eduardo Schaberger Poupeau

Runner-Up: Dark Star

A large dark spot on the sun
A photograph of the sun turned ‘inside-out’. The photographer inverted the rectangular image onto polar coordinates to highlight the smaller prominences that occur on the edge of the sun. Photo: Peter Ward

Highly Commended: The Great Solar Flare 

Solar flare closeup
The sun photographed moving towards its maximum cycle. A large solar flare around 700,000 kilometers long erupts to the left of the image. Photo: Mehmet Ergün

People & Space

Winner: Zeila

A shipwreck disappears in the fog under stars
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 August 25, 2008 and is still in a well-preserved state. The image shows the delicate colors of different star types. Photo: Vikas Chander

Runner-Up: A Visit to Tycho

The international space station against a crater on the moon
In this photo, the International Space Station has been captured in alignment with the Tycho Crater. While actually 1,000 times closer to Earth than the moon, this perspective makes it seem like the station is in fact orbiting our natural satellite. McCarthy travelled to the Sonoran Desert in Arizona to find the perfect position. Photo: Andrew McCarthy

Highly Commended: Close Encounters of The Haslingden Kind

A spaceship-like sculpture under a time-lapse of stars
Haslingden’s Halo is an 18-meter diameter sculpture located in the hills of Lancashire. McGuinness took inspiration from the Close Encounters of The Third Kind film poster to create her image. More than 150 images, taken over an hour and with exposures of 25 seconds each, were combined to show the apparent rotation of stars around Polaris. Photo: Katie McGuinness

Planets, Comets & Asteroids

Winner: Suspended in a Sunbeam

A blurry, colorful Venus
A unique view of Venus using infrared or ultraviolet false colour. By going beyond the visible part of the spectrum, a myriad of fine detail within the upper atmosphere of the planet is revealed. Photo: Tom Williams

Runner-Up: Jupiter Close to Opposition

Closeup of Jupiter's red spot
An image of Jupiter 30 minutes after it crossed the meridian. The Great Red Spot and many details of the turbulent atmosphere, primarily composed of hydrogen and helium gas, are clearly visible, including several smaller storms. Photo: Marco Lorenzi

Highly Commended: Uranus with Umbriel, Ariel, Miranda, Oberon and Titania

Distant photo of Uranus and its five moons
Uranus is so distant that light from the sun takes nearly three hours to reach it and makes it very hard to photograph. This photo was taken in optimum conditions, on a still night with no cloud cover, so the photographer was able to capture Uranus and its five brightest moons, from top to bottom, Titania, Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, and Oberon. Photo: Martin Lewis

Skyscapes

Winner: Grand Cosmic Fireworks

Pink sprites fall from the sky
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. Photo: Angel An

Runner-Up: Celestial Equator Above First World War Trench Memorial

Rainbow-colored star trails over a stone wall
Star trails above the preserved First World War trenches in Canadian National Vimy Memorial Park in northern France. Taken over five hours, the camera captured the rotation of the sky, revealing the colorful stars. Photo: Louis Leroux-Gere

Highly Commended: Noctilucent Night

Storm cloud reflecting over a pond and grassland
Noctilucent clouds are rarely seen around the summer solstice in Hungary, when this photograph was taken. The reflection on the pond below creates a perfect symmetry. Photo: Peter Hoszang

Stars & Nebulae

Winner: New Class of Galactic Nebulae Around the Star YY Hya

Red galactic nebula shines against a background of stars
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 center, a pair of stars surrounded by a common envelope was found. On more than 100 nights, more than 360 hours of exposure time were collected. The result shows an ultra-deep stellar remnant that the team has baptized “the heart of the Hydra.” Photo: Marcel Drechsler

Runner-Up: LDN 1448 et al.

molecular cloud that looks like dust floating in space
A photograph of LDN 1448, which is close to the more spectacular and more often photographed NGC 1333. Quintile chose to photograph the lesser-known molecular cloud to explore the fascinating dust in this part of the sky. Photo: Anthony Quintile

Highly Commended: The Dark Wolf – Fenrir

Thick black molecular cloud on a red hydrogen gas
This image shows a dark, thick molecular cloud in the form of a wolf, known as the Wolf Nebula or Fenrir Nebula. Baguley chose a starless image to emphasise the beautiful red background, which is a dense backdrop of hydrogen gas. Photo: James Baguley

The Sir Patrick Moore Prize for Best Newcomer

Winner: Sh2-132: Blinded by the Light

Colorful gas cloud on the edge of two constellations
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. Photo: Aaron Wilhelm

Young Astronomy Photographer of the Year

Winner: The Running Chicken Nebula

Purple, red, and yellow nebula
The Running Chicken Nebula, IC2944, is located in the constellation of Centaurus, 6,000 light years away from the Earth. Embedded in the nebula’s glowing gas the star cluster Collinder 249 is visible. Photo: Runwei Xu and Binyu Wang

Runner-Up: Blue Spirit Drifting in the Clouds

Seven Sisters star cluster shining brightly
Pleiades is an open star cluster lit by the brightest stars, which illuminate the surrounding nebula giving it an attractive blue hue. The cluster is also known as the Seven Sisters, because many people can see seven stars. But as astrophotography reveals, there are actually over 1,000. Photo: Haocheng Li and Runwei Xu

Highly Commended: Lunar Occultation of Mars

the moon large in the foreground with mars smaller in the background
The lunar occultation of Mars was one of the most interesting celestial events of 2022. Here, an iPhone was used with a Celestron Astromaster 102az Refractor Telescope to capture the moment just before the moon blocked our view of Mars. Photo: Joshua Harwood-White

Highly Commended: Roses Blooming in the Dark: NGC 2337

Red, purple, and blue Rosette Nebula dotted in stars
The Rosette Nebula, NGC 2337, is a large nebula and has a diameter of about 130 light-years. This image has been achieved using narrowband-filter processing. For the star point LRGB filters have been used. Photo: Yanhao Mo

Highly Commended: Moon at Nightfall

Timelapse of the moon rising over a bridge
A photograph of a moonrise over the Xinghai Bay Bridge in Dalian. Atmospheric extinction alters the hue and brightness of the moon when it is low on the horizon. In this photo, you can see the moon appears brighter and less red as it rises in the sky. Photo: Haohan Sun

Annie Maunder Prize for Image Innovation

Winner: Black Echo

Chandra X-ray telescope sonification data of Perseus Galaxy
Taking audio source material from NASA’s Chandra Sonification Project, White visually captured the sound of the black hole at the centre of the Perseus Galaxy. Photo: John White