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Saturn's greatest hits

Diamond Sky Productions / NASA / CICLOPS
This montage features 64 images of Saturn and its moons taken by Cassini.

The end of the year is prime time for award nominations, and the imaging team behind the Cassini orbiter is getting into the act by offering 73 "People's Choice" nominees in three categories of Saturn imagery, with the winners selected by Internet voting. It’s all part of a months-long buildup to the end of Cassini’s four-year primary mission at the ringed planet – and what everyone hopes will be the start of a years-long extended mission.

The imaging team - known formally as the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations, or CICLOPS - had plenty of eyes looking at the hundreds of pictures and videos from which these finalists were chosen. The CICLOPS Alliance, an informal group of Cassini fans, helped pick the cream of the crop.

Finalists include the winner of last January's Saturnian People's Choice award, a backlit view of our solar system's second-biggest planet with Earth appearing as a speck in the black sky. That online contest was run by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This one is purely a CICLOPS production.

Unlike the previous contest, this one has separate categories for color pictures, black-and-white pictures and video. You have until Dec. 30 to vote for your three favorites, and the winners will be announced Dec. 31.

Carolyn Porco, the head of the imaging team, said in an e-mail that she and her colleagues wanted to find out which images "grabbed people the most" as the primary mission nears its conclusion. As a reward, three voters will be selected at random to win a color poster showing the image of their choice:

"We at CICLOPS would like everyone to help us spread the word about Cassini's accomplishments in the past nearly four years, by encouraging friends and family to vote for their favorite Cassini image. We've been told the choice is torturous - every image is a jewel! - but it's for a worthy cause, and there's always the possibility of winning the prize at the end.

"And we also wish one and all a very happy and peaceful holiday season!"

Cassini's $3.4 billion primary mission is due to end next July, but no one at CICLOPS is thinking about winding the operation down. Instead, they're busily laying plans for a mission extension that's likely to be formally announced early next year. "The mission extension, when we get one, will be for two years," Porco said.

The extended mission is expected to follow up on the scads of intriguing data already turned up about Titan and its hydrocarbon lakes, as well as Enceladus and its ice geysers. Additional study of those Saturnian moons could set the stage for a future mission such as TANDEM (the Titan and Enceladus Mission), which is under consideration by the European Space Agency as part of its "Cosmic Vision" plan for space science in the 2015-2025 time frame. NASA has a similar planning process under way, conducted by the Outer Planets Assessment Group.

The bottom line is that you can look forward to future greatest hits from Cassini and its successors, for years if not decades to come.

In the meantime, cast your vote - then check out the latest flying-saucer images of Saturnian moons. You can also take a spin through our own collection of Cassini's greatest hits as well as cool Saturn pictures that were taken before Cassini started orbiting the planet.