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Night skies get a global checkup

GLOBE at Night

Students around the world are being asked to identify the stars of Orion in the night sky as part of a global project to study the effects of light pollution.

Citizen scientists around the world are being asked to watch the skies and report what they see as part of a years-long effort to monitor the effects of light pollution.

This year's "Globe at Night" project gets started on Saturday night. The job is simple: All you need to do is go outside and look for the constellation Orion, which is one of the easiest star patterns to find in the night sky. (It's the one with three stars in a row to represent Orion's "belt.") Fill in the blanks and click the choices listed on this Web app, then send in your observations over the Internet.

Globe at Night is designed to get students familiar with making sky observations, and to call attention to the problems created by excessive and/or inefficient artificial lighting at night. The issue should be of concern not just to astronomers, but to the wider public as well, Connie Walker of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory said during this week's American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, Texas.

"In many places, we are raising a generation of people who don't know what the Milky Way looks like," Spacewriter blogger Carolyn Collins Petersen quoted Walker as saying. Some studies have shown that excessive exposure to certain types of artificial light at night can even throw off our biological clocks.

Globe at Night data will be collected over the course of a week during each month from now until April. The project has been conducted annually for the past six years. Observers from 115 countries have contributed 66,000 measurements so far.

The visibility data gathered from different locales could help dark-sky advocates press for changes in lighting ordinances. Next week, for example, commissioners for Buncombe County in North Carolina will consider upgrades in outdoor-lighting standards. Such changes can be controversial, but if the transition from less efficient to more efficient lighting is handled properly, the upgrades can be energy-savers and cost-savers as well as sky-savers. For more on that angle, check out the International Dark-Sky Association's website.

The Globe at Night project isn't the only reason to explore the night sky: Tonight you can see a cool pairing of the moon and Mars, and over the next few nights, the International Space Station will be visible before dawn from many U.S. locations. Check NASA's sighting database to find out when and where to watch for the bright "star" of the space station passing overhead.

Who knows? You might even spot the fiery fall of Russia's Phobos-Grunt probe, which is due to come sometime between now and Monday. If you snag a picture of Phobos-Grunt's fall, or any other interesting sky phenomena, feel free to share it with us, either by posting it to the Cosmic Log Facebook page or submitting it to msnbc.com's FirstPerson in-box.

More resources for skywatchers:

To learn still more about the negative effects of light pollution, on the body as well as on the soul, check out this commentary by Minnesota writer Peter M. Leschak, published last week in the StarTribune. The Globe at Night project is also discussed in this podcast from 365 Days of Astronomy.

Alan Boyle is msnbc.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. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.