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Milky Way stars in 2013's top astronomy photos

Australian photographer Mark Gee won top honors in the Astronomy Photographer of the Year context with this picture, which shows off the Milky Way and two of its satellite galaxies, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. Can you spot them? Mark Gee

In this year's Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, our Milky Way galaxy takes the starring role — in more ways than one.

Stars seem to spew forth from a lighthouse on the New Zealand coast in the annual contest's winning picture, captured by Australian photographer Mark Gee. "I love the way that the Milky Way appears to emanate from the lighthouse — really cementing the connection between the stars and the landscape," said one of the judges, Pete Lawrence. "I also love the way the Milky Way drags your view out to sea, inviting you to go out and explore the unknown."

Gee said he was spending the night at New Zealand's Cape Palliser and woke up at about 5 a.m. to behold the starry scene. "The only problem was that my camera gear was at the top of the lighthouse ... so I had to climb the 250-plus steps to retrieve it before I could take this photo," he said.

This panorama was stitched together from 20 separate images. The Magellanic Clouds, two of the Milky Way's satellite galaxies, appear as faint smudges on the left side of the image, above the main galactic arc.

This is the fifth year for the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, organized by the Royal Observatory Greenwich. The judges had to choose from a record number of entries: There were more than 1,200 images from 49 countries. Our slideshow features the top photos in several categories. The observatory has also put together a selection of videos that tell the stories behind some of the pictures.

Gee receives the contest's top prize of £1,500 for his image, "Guiding Light to the Stars," but the other photographers are winners, too. The best photos are featured in a free exhibition at the Royal Observatory's Astronomy Center that runs through next February, and in a book published by the observatory. There's even an app for iPhone and iPad.

"Never has our cosmos been captured so beautifully!" said Chris Bramley, editor of BBC Sky at Night Magazine and one of the contest judges. Will the same be said next year? Stay tuned.

More astronomical wonders:

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