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Pick your space pix

The options on the "You Decide" ballot for Hubble observations include (top row,

from left) NGC 6634, NGC 6072 and NGC 40, as well as (bottom row) Arp 274, NGC 4289 and NGC 5172. The Hubble team will conduct online voting through March 1.

Pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope are usually the biggest crowd-pleasers in our monthly roundups of outer-space imagery, and now you can help pick out which cosmic curiosity will get the star treatment from Hubble's team.

An online vote, with six choices on the ballot, is being conducted through March 1 - and the winner's picture will be splashed all over the Internet a little more than a month later. Think of it as the cosmic version of "American Idol," without the bickering judges.

Your vote doesn't have to be a shot in the dark. At the Hubble team's "You Decide" Web page, you can click on a video in which Frank Summers, an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, explains the attractions of each potential target:

  • NGC 6634: A star-forming region inside the Cat's Paw Nebula, in the constellation Scorpius. The region is just one of the footpads in the "paw" shown above.
  • NGC 6072: A planetary nebula in the constellation Scorpius. Such nebulae are created when dying stars puff out shells of glowing gas. The "planetary" title refers to the fact that they can look like planets when viewed through small telescopes. 
  • NGC 40: Another planetary nebula, in the constellation Cepheus, which has been dubbed the Bow Tie Nebula because of its lobed appearance. Like NGC 6072, this nebula has a reddish glow.
  • NGC 5172: A spiral galaxy in the constellation Coma Berenices, containing more than 100 billion stars. This galaxy is angled toward us, and astronomers have spotted at least two supernovae firing off inside the disk.
  • NGC 4289: Another spiral galaxy, but this one is facing us edge-on from the constellation Virgo. The disk's arms are thin, but some images reveal a thicker fog of stars just around the center.
  • Arp 274: Two galaxies (or is it three?) are locked in a gravitational dance, creating wild spirals of stars as they interact. Such encounters create spectacular bursts of infant suns. Arp 274 is in the constellation Virgo.

None of these galaxies has gotten a close-up look from Hubble before, and perhaps the biggest benefit of this exercise is that space fans could get to know these objects almost as well as reality-TV fans know the "American Idol" finalists.

The rankings are being updated on the "You Decide" Web page as the balloting continues. After the end of voting on March 1, the Hubble team will point the space telescope in the winner's direction. Imagery from the observations will be released in the April 2-5 time frame, during the 100 Hours of Astronomy event organized for the International Year of Astronomy.

 In the meantime, you can peruse the winning images in our "Month in Space" slideshow for January - and if those pictures aren't big enough, click on these links to see higher-resolution versions:

  • Cosmic blast zone: The planetary nebula NGC 2818 is one of this month's biggest winners - from Hubble, naturally. Read more about it.
  • Star-spangled flier:Get the bigger picture of software billionaire Charles Simonyi's zero-gravity training, and learn more about the spaceflights of the super-rich.
  • Moon over Maine:This picture makes the year's biggest full moon, as seen from South Portland, even bigger. And this story explains the orbital mechanics of it all.
  • Full-frontal Saturn: Consult the Cassini imaging team's Web site for more pixels and more perspective on the ringed planet as well as the Cassini orbiter's mission.
  • Still smokin' hot: NASA's Earth Observatory is the place to go to find out more about Chile's Chaiten volcano and its impressive plume.
  • X marks the spot:We filled you in on SpaceX's progress toward the launch of its first Falcon 9 rocket, and you'll find more cool pictures at SpaceX's Web site.
  • Break time on Mars: The Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Web site provides a bigger panorama showing the rocky, sandy Martian terrain that surrounds NASA's Opportunity rover.
  • What happens in Vegas... doesn't necessarily stay in Vegas. Click here to see a bigger picture that serves as a commentary on what light pollution is doing to the night sky. You'll want to read the full story, of course.
  • Hammered on Mars: You'll find a higher-resolution view of a cratered Martian scene, plus much more, at the HiRISE Web site for Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
  • Our galaxy's Grand Central Station:Another amazing Hubble picture reveals the blazing center of our own galaxy - with an assist from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.
  • Stars on the move:These Hubble images show the glowing tails of gas left behind as stars plow through space. This story explains what's going on.
  • Red Sea crossing: Once again, the Earth Observatory has the full story behind the Terra satellite's view of a Middle East dust storm. 
  • Alien sand and frost: Hie yourself over to the HiRISE Web site for more about the Martian sand dunes in Russell Crater.
  • Winter colors: Snow, ice and fog never looked so colorful from space. NASA's MODIS Web site has more about the Terra satellite's view of the Pacific Northwest in winter.
  • Beyond the rings: If you go back to the Cassini imaging team's Web site and look at the high-resolution image, you'll understand why the Saturnian moon Mimas is known as "the Death Star."

Photo credits: The montage at the top of this item includes an image of the Cat's Paw Nebula (of which NGC 6634 is a part, visible toward the lower right) from T.A. Rector / University of Alaska at Anchorage, T. Abbott and NOAO / AURA / NSF; images of NGC 6072 and NGC 40 from Steve and Paul Mandel / Adam Block / NOAO / AURA / NSF; an image of Arp 274 from the NASA / IPAC Extragalactic Database (courtesy of Halton C. Arp); and images of NGC 4289 and NGC 5172 from the STScI Digitized Sky Survey.