So, you want to become an astronomer? Maybe you had your appetite for stargazing built up by all these rumors about a monstrous Mars being visible this weekend, only to find out it's just an Internet hoax. Don't fret: It turns out there are plenty of opportunities to put your skywatching talents to good use - especially if you're a kid (or a kid at heart).
The first opportunity is the Star Count project, backed by NASA and the Canadian Space Agency. This exercise is endorsed by none other than Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean, who's due to head for the international space station along with five crewmates aboard the space shuttle Atlantis this weekend.
Star Count calls upon students around the world to observe the night sky using simple equipment (OK, it can be a cardboard tube or even a rolled-up sheet of paper). You mark down how many stars you see, enter the numbers into an online database - and the result will eventually provide a good indication of how atmospheric light pollution in various locales affects the quality of night sky viewing.
MacLean will conduct his own observations during the shuttle flight, and check his results against the Star Count database. To learn still more about the project, check out the Canadian Space Agency's Web site and this report from The Canadian Teacher.
Then there's SuitSat, the empty spacesuit that was packed with amateur-radio transmitting equipment and shoved out from the space station back in February. The radio signals faded away months ago, but amazingly, the silent suit is still in orbit more than 200 days after its deployment, according to a report on ARRLWeb.
That means there's still time to enter the "Chicken Little Contest" organized by Amateur Radio on the International Space Station and the Radio Amateur Satellite Corp., known as Amsat. If you guess the exact day that SuitSat burns up in the atmosphere, you'll get a certificate. If SuitSat continues to beat the odds and outlasts your prediction, that's OK - all you have to do is renew your entry with a new date. (Tip o' the Log to Jim Oberg.)
Finally, the European Space Agency is putting out a call for amateur astronomers to turn their telescopes toward the moon on the night of Sept. 2-3, when the SMART-1 probe is due to smash into the lunar "Lake of Excellence."
The "smackdown" should raise a plume of debris from the impact, and the ESA hopes to gather observations from big-ticket observatories as well as small-fry observers. For the details, check out this technical data.