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Discover Hubble's hidden treasures

In this video from the European Hubble team, Joe Liske (aka Dr J) presents the winners of the "Hidden Treasures" image-processing competition.

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:

A time-lapse video shows how Josh Lake transformed data from the Hubble Legacy Archive into a prize-winning picture of the star-forming region known as NGC 1763, using software tools including PixInsight and Photoshop. Music by Sigur Ros: Gobbledigook

NASA / ESA / Josh Lake

Josh Lake submitted a stunning image of NGC 1763, part of the N11 star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud. ESA/Hubble had previously published an image of an area just adjacent to this, based on observations by the same team. Josh took a different approach, producing a bold two-color image that contrasts the light from glowing hydrogen and nitrogen. The image is not in natural colors — hydrogen and nitrogen produce almost indistinguishable shades of red light that our eyes would struggle to tell apart — but Josh's processing separates them out into blue and red, dramatically highlighting the structure of the region. As well as narrowly topping the jury's vote, Josh Lake also won the public vote.

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.

NASA / ESA / Andre van der Hoeven

Andre van der Hoeven of the Netherlands came a close second in the jury vote. His image of the spiral galaxy Messier 77 is highly attractive, and is also an impressive piece of image processing, combining a number of datasets from separate instruments into one amazing picture.

NASA / ESA / Judy Schmidt

Judy Schmidt of the United States entered several highly accomplished images into the competition. Her picture of XZ Tauri, a newborn star spraying out gas into its surroundings and lighting up a nearby cloud of dust, was the jury's favorite - and won third place in the image-processing contest. This was a challenging dataset to process, as Hubble only captured two colors in this area. Nevertheless, the end result is an attractive image, and an unusual object that we would never have found without her help

NASA / ESA / Brian Campbell

Brian Campbell's picture of NGC 6300 won first prize in the basic image-searching category.

NASA / ESA / Budeanu Cosmin Mirel

Budeanu Cosmin Mirel won the public vote in the basic image-searching category with a picture of NGC 4100.

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.