The Most Amazing Space Pictures of 2011

Check out this totally breathtaking image of Jupiter and two of its moons, Io and Ganymede — it's not just an astounding image, it's also officially the coolest astronomy photo of 2011, according to the Royal Observatory's annual contest.

It's the work of British photographer Damian Peach, and it also won the "Our Solar System" category. The winners in the "Deep Space" and "Earth and Space" categories are also amazing to behold, and so are the runners-up.

Here are just a few of our favorites from among the winners and runners-up:

The Most Amazing Space Pictures of 2011

Vela Supernova Remnant by Marco Lorenzi (Italy). He writes: "I've always been inspired by supernova remnants, in particular by their reach and their different compositions. After all, several of the building bricks of life are created during these apocalyptic events."

The Most Amazing Space Pictures of 2011

Leo Triplet by Edward Henry (USA). According to the Observatory:

The Leo Triplet is a group of three spiral galaxies located thirty-five million light years away. Like our own Milky Way, they are disc-like galaxies. They contain billions of stars with bright knots of gas and dark dusty lanes, which trace spiral patterns where new stars are formed. The galaxy on the left is seen edge-on, as we view our own galaxy.

The Most Amazing Space Pictures of 2011

Fighting Dragons of Ara (NGC 6188 and 6164) by Michael Sidonio (Australia). He writes: "I wanted to showcase this beautiful piece of Ara in a fresh new way, that would highlight the amazing structures and also reveal the rarely imaged faint expanding shell around NGC 6164."

The Most Amazing Space Pictures of 2011

Orion, Head to Toe by Rogelio Bernal Andreo (USA). According to the Observatory: "Orion the Hunter, one of the most prominent winter constellations in the northern hemisphere, is laid out from left to right in this photograph. A huge cloud of gas and dust in which new stars are forming lies below the three stars of Orion's belt, while bright red and blue supergiant stars mark his armpit and foot."

The Most Amazing Space Pictures of 2011

Planetary Nebula Shapley 1 by Steve Crouch (Australia). According to the Royal Observatory: "When viewed through a small telescope, planetary nebulae like Shapley 1 resemble nearby planets in our Solar System. They are, in fact, distant regions of hot, glowing gas ejected by stars as they run out of fuel at the end of their lives. The colours visible in the ring are caused by the temperature and chemical composition of the material this star has returned to its environment."

The Most Amazing Space Pictures of 2011

Volcanic Aurora by Örvar Atli Þorgeirsson (Iceland). Örvar writes: "I have always wanted to shoot the aurora with an erupting volcano. This night shooting the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, at the very end of the aurora season, luck was with me."

The Most Amazing Space Pictures of 2011

May 7th Hydrogen-Alpha Sun by Peter Ward (Australia). Ward writes: "The dynamics of the solar chromosphere change on a daily basis. I enjoy documenting these features, which unlike the majority of astronomical subjects can literally change in minutes."

Check out the rest over at the link. [Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2011]