The results are in from the latest "People's Choice" contest for the favorite image from Saturn, and the winners include a sure-fire stunner, a picture worthy of an abstract-art exhibit and a video flyover of a two-toned moon.
Over the past month, thousands of Internet users registered their personal favorites online in the contest - conducted by the imaging team for the Cassini spacecraft, a probe that has been orbiting the ringed planet for three and a half years.
"Many of these individuals wrote to us to say how difficult a choice it was: So many of our images and movies are such jewels that to choose one over the others was painful. In fact, a few told us the choice was so torturous they refused to vote!" the team said in a New Year's Eve statement announcing the winners.
The top picks were revealed in three categories: color imagery, black-and-white and video. In the first category, the runaway winner was a backlit view of Saturn and its rings - plus a pale blue dot representing a "you are here" perspective of Earth from hundreds of millions of miles away. The picture appears at the top of this page, but our tiny speck of a planet can be seen more clearly in the full-size imagery available via this Web page.
This picture, taken in September 2006, is already on its way to becoming a classic: A year ago, it was voted the top image in a similar "People's Choice" offering from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. And last May, psychologist Steven Pinker rhapsodized about the picture, calling it "perhaps the most stunning photograph ever taken":
"This is truly awe-inspiring - not just visually beautiful, but a mind-boggling technical achievement, and a way to depict the finiteness and fragility of the planet in a way that we haven't experienced since the famous 'Earthrise' photo from the Apollo program in the late 1960s."
The competition was much tighter for the other two categories - so tight, in fact, that the Cassini imaging team declared ties for first place. In the black-and-white category, one of the co-winners was an infrared view of Saturn's shadowed side, filtered so that cloud patterns could be seen beneath the planet's top layer of atmospheric haze.
The other co-winner was a "Kandinsky-eque" view of Saturn and Titan, the planet's largest moon. The arrangement of Saturn's disk, its nearly edge-on rings and the crescent disk of Titan was so geometric that it reminded the scientists of the Russian painter's abstract masterpieces.
Both images have been added to our own slide show of Cassini's greatest hits.
The video winners document a couple of Cassini's wild rides through the Saturnian system. One time-lapse video was taken as the spacecraft descended to cross the ring plane at a distance of 500,000 miles from the planet. The camera focused on the rings as they shrank to a thin line and then widened again, while Saturnian moons zipped through the field of view. The "Great Crossing" is featured in this NBC News video as well as on this page of the Cassini imaging team's Web site.
"Our most technically challenging movie to date, this is a gripping, strap-yourself-in blast over the moon's high mountain peaks, and we were not surprised to see it rise to the top of this category," the imaging team said.
Some of those who participated in the contest will be selected to receive Cassini posters from the imaging team, which is headquartered at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. For more stunners from Saturn - and elsewhere in the cosmos - check out our space gallery.
While we're on the subject of contests, we should recognize the leading vote-getters in our own ballot for top space stories: As of today, your vote for the biggest story of the past year has resulted in a tie: The rising tide of international space missions (including China's first lunar probe) is sharing the glory with the quickening search for distant planets.
Your choice for the biggest trend to watch in 2008 is more clear-cut: Almost a third of you put the final mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope on the top of your list. Here's hoping that we'll have good news to report about Cassini, Hubble, Mars Phoenix and the other marquee space missions a year from now.
Update for 9:20 p.m. ET Jan. 16, 2008: The Cassini imaging team gave away posters of the backlit Saturn image - basically, a Saturnian solar eclipse - as prizes to three randomly selected voters in the contest. The winners are:
Chris Carpenter, a systems engineer for an Internet service provider from Wake Forest, N.C., who enjoys birdwatching and stargazing.
Mark Gerwlivch, a retired high-school science teacher and stargazer from Ontario, Canada.
John Keller, a mechanical engineer from Houston who enjoys hiking and astronomy.
Five of the volunteers who helped select the finalists also received posters: Carl Krauss, Christine Millsaps, Michael Rutkowski, Louise Sharples and Helen Sotiriadis.