A telescope isn’t an unusual thing to own if you are technically inclined. You might have even made one, at some point. However, despite improvements in optical technology and computer aiming devices, your four to twenty-inch instrument is never going to show you images like you see from big giant telescopes. The problem is, going really big requires a lot of investment in time, money, and sometimes even real estate. The big scopes get buildings constructed for them, and in exotic locations; why would you build a 24-inch scope only to try to see through the light pollution in your backyard?
Here’s an idea: take an astronomy class at a college and use their big telescope. Well, who has the time and money for that? Actually, you do. Skynet is a global network of telescopes headquartered at the University of North Carolina. As part of their mandate, they offer several tuition-free astronomy classes over the Internet. The best part? You also get free time on Skynet’s telescopes to complete your class assignments. There is a small fee (between $45 and $65) to a “benefit corporation” to administer assignments. You do get a certificate upon graduation. If you don’t want to do the assignments and you don’t want a certificate, you can still “take” the classes by simply watching them on YouTube. You can see one of the classes in the video below.
Skynet has access to telescopes world-wide, including several 16-inch and 17-inch instruments in Chile and Australia. They also have 100% access to a 24-inch scope in North Carolina. There’s also a 20 meter radio telescope and they are building 32-inch and 24-inch scopes in Chile.
The picture above (taken from this site) shows NGC 3521 through one of Skynet’s telescopes (although it was built from 19 hours worth of data). Not bad for an object 20 to 40 million light years away. The Hubble also provides an excellent view, and either image is a lot better than what Herschel saw when he discovered it in 1784.