Each week our photo editors hand-pick breathtaking photos of space. Of the 350 space photos published in 2014, we bring you our picks for the 12 best of the year.
In the above photo, the Lagoon Nebula, an immense tapestry of young stars born amid a fiery cloud of gas and stellar cinders, stuns viewers in this view taken from the Paranal Observatory high in the Chilean desert.
—By Dan Vergano and staff writers, photo gallery by news photo editors
Photograph by ESO/VPHAS+ team
Bright Lights, Big Cities
The bright lights of Hollywood (right) blaze on the Pacific coast in this October scene shot from the International Space Station.
The nighttime panorama displays San Francisco (center) and Los Angeles backed by the Sierra Nevada. In the distance, Salt Lake City, in Utah, shines beneath a curved horizon tinted green with the glimmer of the northern lights.
Photograph by NASA Earth Observatory
The highest peak on Amsterdam Island, a tiny volcanic dot in the Indian Ocean, juts up 2,844 feet (867 meters). In this Landsat image taken from space, the mountain splits clouds into streamers much the way a boat creates ripples in water.
Photograph by Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory
Purple Robes for Hercules
The Hercules A galaxy reveals its superpowered core in an image captured by NASA's Chandra X-ray Space Telescope. Lavender and blue superheated gas clouds, meanwhile, swath its center.
In visible light, the galaxy some two billion light-years away looks like an ellipse, but researchers can see the luminous core at the heart of Hercules A using x-rays.
Astronomers suspect that the galaxy holds a supermassive black hole that is actively devouring stars and other stellar material. (Read "Black Hole: Star Eater" in National Geographic magazine.)
Photograph by X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO, Optical: NASA/STScI, Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA
Marching across the red planet's rugged Terra Cimmeria region, these dunes will soon end up trapped inside the crater, joining the dust of others dunes similarly vanquished.
Photograph by NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Monkey Head Marks Hubble Milestone
Happy birthday, Hubble. Astronomers snapped this image—released on March 17—of the Monkey Head Nebula in honor of the famous space telescope's 24 years in orbit.
The nebula, formally known as NGC 2174, resides 6,400 light-years away, within the Orion constellation. It's a region known as a stellar nursery, where clouds of gas and dust coalesce to form young stars. (Learn more about star formation.)
Photograph by NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Blowing in the Wind
Dust from the Sahara swallows Africa in an image released September 21. Astronauts on the International Space Station took the picture as the station passed over Libya.
International Space Station astronauts snapped an intriguing view of Utah's Green River, a section known as Bowknot Bend. The meandering river (dark blue-green) has cut a canyon nearly a thousand feet deep (305 meters) over many millennia.
The image, released March 14, also caught the contrail of an airplane (white streak, lower left) as it flew over the area. (Learn about life in space on the National Geographic Channel.)
Photograph by NASA/JPL-CALTECH/University of Arizona
Ringside Seats Reveal Saturn's Gaps
One of Saturn's many moons, Tethys, gleams brightly and offers a peek from between the planet's A and F rings, in an image released October 13.
Photograph by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Scattered high points on the bed of Australia's Lake Mackay set off blooms of algae and desert plants baked by the sun, as seen by NASA's Terra spacecraft. The ephemeral salt lake is the second largest lake in Australia.
Photograph by NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS
Mesmerizing Moments Amid Wondrous Whirlpool
The Whirlpool galaxy glints with x-ray lights from the neutron stars and black holes blanketing its far-flung arms.
Photograph by NASA/CHANDRA X-RAY Observatory Center/Wesleyan University
An Elusive Green Light
The famed northern lights shine across the shores of Pontoon Lake in Canada's Northwest Territories in an image released September 23.
Green is the most common color of this natural phenomenon that has dazzled sky-watchers for millennia. (See more aurora pictures.)