Brief background: I finished undergrad back in 2002 (Physics + Computer Science), been working as a software engineer since then, now planning to try and go to grad school probably in fall 2011
Because I've been out of school for several years, I'm worried about my lack of recent research experience and not being able to get letters of recommendation from professors. I did do a semester of astro research as an undergrad, haven't kept in touch with the professor, but if I could get hold of him he'd at least remember me. My other recommendations would have to come from employers.
Since I have roughly a year before applying to grad school, I was wondering if it would be possible to get some new research experience in that time and hopefully get to work with some professors. But as a non-student I'm not sure how to go about it. Would professors even consider working with someone that is not currently a student? Are they even allowed to? I'd be willing to do it on a volunteer basis since my whole goal is to get the experience and networking opportunities, as well as confirm that I actually enjoy the research and want to dedicate the next several years to this.
Is it worth sending emails to astro/physics profs at nearby schools and asking them about this, or is it pointless and they'd just think I was a weirdo? If this isn't viable, what else would you recommend someone in my situation do to improve their chances of getting into a top school (other than studying a lot for the physics GRE)?