Hard-up astronomers are raising funds for research by selling the only wares they have: the stars.
A nonprofit organisation has started an adopt-a-star programme to raise money for an international research consortium to analyse data from NASA's planet-hunting Kepler mission.
The programme, which is not affiliated with NASA, is called "Pale Blue Dot" to echo Carl Sagan's description of Earth as seen from space. It encourages donors to pick one of 100,000 stars in Kepler's field of view that show promise for hosting planets.
For $10, you - and you alone - can plant your personal flag in that star on Google Sky. As Kepler makes new discoveries, you will get email updates about your star and its potential planets.
"There are plenty of phony name-a-star things on the web, but I think we were the first scientists to use this sort of model for fundraising, and as a public outreach tool," says project leader Travis Metcalfe of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. "We're trying to educate people about what the Kepler mission does, and to get them excited about the quest for other Earths."
The money raised will go to the Kepler Astroseismic Science Consortium, an international group of researchers who study the seismology of stars. The group cannot get NASA funding to support its research because the agency can't fund foreign organisations.
"We're always short of funding, of course, as scientists," says consortium leader Jorgen Christensen-Dalsgaard of Aarhus University in Denmark.
The consortium will help the Kepler mission pin down the size of the planets it finds. Kepler finds planets by watching for the dip in a star's brightness when the planet crosses in front of it. Known as transits, these events can only reveal the ratio between the planet's size and that of its star. To find the planet's absolute size, they'll need to know the size of the star.
But Kepler will observe some stars frequently enough that scientists will be able to detect pulsations in the star. Convection on the star's surface can cause these pulsations by sending waves echoing through the star's interior.
"We'll use those pulsations the way seismologists use earthquakes on Earth to measure the internal properties of the star," Metcalfe says. Scientists can use pulsations to measure the radius of the star to within a few per cent, giving NASA a way to determine the size of the planet.
Pulsations can also help determine the stars' ages, which can help give an idea of how planetary systems form over time.
The researchers may even be able to detect non-transiting planets that the main Kepler team would miss, if the planet is massive enough to make the star wobble towards and away from Earth.
Stellar scientists see Kepler's data as a windfall. "We see this as a fantastic opportunity to get data on stellar interiors and stellar processes basically for free, because it's the same kind of data we're using," Christensen-Dalsgaard says.
"With Kepler's sensitivity, we'll get unprecedented observations of these variable stars that we've tried to understand from the ground," Metcalfe says.
Christensen-Dalsgaard roughly estimates that the consortium will need about $1 million, give or take a factor of two, to pay scientists' salaries and bring them together at conferences. If all 100,000 stars sell, they'll make exactly that. Interest has been high so far, but Christensen-Dalsgaard doubts they'll sell all of them.
What about the planets that Kepler has already detected? Last week, the Kepler team announced they had detected three previously known planets, confirming that the telescope is operating as it should.
"Those are reserved for a special purpose," Metcalfe says. Initially he tried to get television personality Steven Colbert to adopt one, but the comedian hasn't responded. Metcalfe isn't sure what to do with those planets yet - but he says, "it's gonna be good".
This was first published in August 2009