On many evenings, as darkness sets in, Jamie Vogel turns off his TV and computer, steps outside his home in Raleigh, N.C., and tilts his head upward to contemplate the stars.

We may be living in bad times, says Vogel, a 43-year-old computer engineer, "but it's never a bad time to look up at the sky."

Yes, much of the world is focused on the travails of the global economy. We're bombarded by news of layoffs and foreclosures. But Vogel and others like him are making an extra effort to look beyond our little planet. They argue that this age of uncertainty is actually a good time to dream mankind's biggest dreams. And they're being encouraged by space-exploration proponents who are finding new ways to involve amateur astronomers.

The Planetary Society, a nonprofit advocacy group, recently asked its 50,000 members to vote on issues such as establishing a human presence on Mars, mining asteroids for resources and searching for extraterrestrial life. People could check either "Take it on!" or "Don't even try."

The Space Telescope Science Institute has asked the public to vote on where in the universe the Hubble Telescope should be pointed. After 140,000 people weighed in, the winner was Arp 274, a pair of galaxies pulled together by gravity. Starting today, Hubble will photograph Arp 274, named after astronomer Halton Arp.

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