Aug. 23, 2012 at 8:29 PM ET
The team behind the Hubble Space Telescope has transformed our view of the universe through iconic images such as the Pillars of Creation and the Cat's Eye, but even the professionals can miss some gems — as demonstrated by today's winners of the "Hubble's Hidden Treasures" contest.
The contest, which had its kickoff in March, invited members of the public to sort through more than 700,000 archived images from the space telescope and come up with pictures that have never before been put in the spotlight. The results illustrate how today's software is making it easier for amateur astronomers to do professional-level work.
The Hidden Treasures contest is sponsored by the folks at the European Space Agency's Hubble headquarters in Garching, Germany. Nearly 3,000 photo submissions were received, in two categories. One category was reserved for folks who used color compositing and other image-processing techniques to bring out the best in the Hubble imagery. The other was for folks who spotted great pictures in the archive, but didn't fully process the images themselves.
Ten winners were selected in each category and will receive prizes ranging from Hubble posters to Apple gadgets and autographs from "Hubble-hugging" astronaut John Grunsfeld.
The top winner in the image-processing category, as well as the "People's Choice" competition, is Josh Lake, a 34-year-old physics and astronomy teacher (and volleyball coach) at Pomfret School in Connecticut. Lake told me he was "really surprised and happy" to learn that he was a winner.
"We have our own observatory here, so I've been teaching students to do processing for the past five years or so," he said.
The fact that he won the People's Choice online contest might not have been so surprising, considering that he could enlist students and alumni, family and friends to vote for his picture of the star-forming region NGC 1763. "I was totally blown away to find out that I had won the jury prize, too" Lake said.
Lake said that image processing is "something that I love doing," but it sounds as if he won't be giving up his teaching job for a career in astronomical image processing anytime soon. "I think I would really miss the students and this community," he said. "It'd be a tough lifestyle to break out of, and just go to a 9-to-5 job sitting in front of a computer. ... The work here is hard, but it's life-changing."
Here's hoping that Lake's image-building feat will be life-changing as well. To get a sense of how he did it, check out this three-minute time-lapse video of the process, and then feast your eyes on the finished product:
Here are a few more of the contest winners, with comments from the European Hubble team. For links to all 20 images, check out the European Hubble site's "Hidden Treasures" announcement.
More winners in astrophotography:
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+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other 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 dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.