Discuss as:

See 2012's top shots in astronomy

(c) Martin Pugh

This picture of the Whirlpool Galaxy, also known as M51, won top honors in the Deep Space category and the overall competition for 2012 Astronomy Photographer of the Year. The picture was entered by British-Australian photographer Martin Pugh. Here's what the Royal Observatory says: "This beautifully composed image of the Whirlpool Galaxy combines fine detail in the spiral arms with the faint tails of light that show its small companion galaxy being gradually torn apart by the gravity of its giant neighbour. A closer look shows even more distant galaxies visible in the background."

The Whirlpool Galaxy is one of the most photogenic spirals in the known universe, but not all whirlpools are created equal: Australian photographer Martin Pugh's view of the galaxy, also known as M51, was stunning enough to win him the top prize in the Royal Observatory's Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition.

"It's a remarkable achievement by an amateur astronomer; one of the best images of M51 that I've seen," Marek Kukula, the Royal Observatory's public astronomer and one of the contest judges, said in a news release. More than 800 entries were submitted, and the observatory announced the winners on Wednesday night.

Pugh said via Flickr that he was "absolutely delighted" by the honor — but for him, this isn't exactly a novel experience: He also won top honors in the 2009 competition. 

Sir Patrick Moore, who's best-known for his British TV programs on astronomy, was impressed by the level of professionalism that today's amateurs bring to their sky snapshots. "Many of the pictures have been taken with equipment that was out of the range of the amateur many years ago," he said. "I also like the choice of subjects: photographing people and the night skies is very difficult. The entrants have done very well indeed."

Take a look at these winners, and then click your way through all the favorites at the Royal Museums Greenwich website. You can also scan through thousands of archived entries at the APotY Flickr gallery, and see the photo exhibition at the Royal Observatory through February.

(c) Masahiro Miyasaka

Japan's Masahiro Miyasaka won top honors in the Earth and Space category with this shot of Orion, Taurus and the Pleiades shining in the night sky above an icy landscape. The category is for photos that include "Earthly" things along with an astronomical subject. Miyasaka's entry, titled "Star Icefall," included a poem about the view: "The stars fell from the heavens. / The stars transformed themselves into an icicle. / Stars sleep eternally here."

(c) Chris Warren

The sun shines through the clouds during June's transit of Venus, as seen in this prize-winning photo from Britain's Chris Warren. The picture, captured through a hydrogen-alpha filter, won top honors in the Our Solar System category. Venus is visible as a black spot toward the sun's upper right edge."Our first and only glimpse of the transit before third contact, through a thin patch in the clouds at Blackheath in London," Warren writes.

(c) Jacob von Chorus

Fifteen-year-old Jacob von Chorus of Canada won top honors in the Young Astronomy category with this view of the Pleiades star cluster. "This image was a test to see what would happen with such a long exposure," von Chorus writes. "It was taken near dusk, with only two frames and an hour of exposure. This image has since become one of my best." The Young Astronomy category is for photographers under 16 years of age.

(c) Laurent Laveder

France's Laurent Laveder won a special award for this photo of a Venus-Jupiter conjunction on March 15, taken on the beach at Tréguennec in northwest France. "In this image, Venus is higher and on the right of Jupiter," Laveder writes. "I take my place in the lower right corner of the frame to complete the diagonal formed by me, the two planets, the Pleiades and Taurus. With my red flashlight on my head, I illuminate the beach. At low tide, the sand is wet and is reflecting the blockhouse." Laveder won the People and Space award, for photos that include people in a creative way.

(c) Lorand Fenyes

Hungary's Lóránd Fényes won the Best Newcomer award, reserved for photographers who have taken up the hobby in the past year and have not entered an image in the competition before. This picture shows the Elephant's Trunk nebula, seemingly uncoiling within the star cluster IC 1396 in the constellation Cepheus. "The Elephant's Trunk is my 34th photo," Fényes writes.

(c) Thomas Read

Twelve-year-old Thomas Read of Britain won the Robotic Scope prize with this view of the Sunflower Galaxy (M63), captured online using the Bradford Robotic Telescope in Tenerife. "I love this image, as it shows fantastic detail in the spiral arms," Read writes. "I was curious about the Sunflower Galaxy and how to maximize photographic results for a distant galaxy." The award goes to images taken by robotic or remote telescopes and then processed by the entrant.

More marvelous astronomy shots:

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ circles. To keep up with Cosmic Log and NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, sent to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.