Calling all star gazers

If you like to stare off into space, next week you can do it with purpose. The National Science Foundation-funded Great World Wide Star Count takes place between Oct. 20 to Nov.3 and organizers want as many people as possible to go outside in the dark, look up, count the stars they see in certain constellations, and report what they see online.

The project, in its second year, is handled by the Windows to the Universe project at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) in Boulder, Colo., in conjunction with planetariums and scientific societies across the world. Participants can download an Activity Guide to participate. The guides are available in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Italian, Romanian and Chinese.

The 2007 star count drew 6,624 observations taken in all seven continents, and organizers expect the number of participants to double this year. UCAR used last year's observations to generate maps of star visibility around the world.

Participants in the Northern Hemisphere will look for the constellation Cygnus, while those in the Southern Hemisphere will look for the constellation Sagittarius. They will then match their observations with charts downloaded from the Great World Wide Star Count Web site. The site also contains instructions for finding the constellations, and other event details.

Contributors can make observations outside their homes or go to less-developed areas where more stars are visible, the NSF said. Even those whose space view is blocked by clouds will be able to input data about cloud conditions instead. Bright outdoor lighting at night is a growing problem for astronomical observing programs around the world, the NSF said.

Next year, the star count will be part major part of the 2009 International Year of Astronomy, a global effort initiated by the International Astronomical Union and the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to promote interest in astronomy.

Official star gazers at NASA earlier this year spotted an unbelievably bright star in our Milky Way galaxy that may ultimately be the brightest star ever discovered. While the newly visualized star, dubbed the "Peony nebula," burns with the light of an estimated 3.2 million suns it comes in a distant second to the Eta Carina star which flames in with a whopping solar wattage of 4.7 million suns, NASA said.

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