I am a believer in the usage of smaller telescopes, both for pure research and for teaching. Today, giant eight meter marvels 'are where its at' but that is partly a reflection of "aperture envy" -- "Mine is bigger than yours".
The usefulness of small telescopes has been repeatedly demonstrated. For references see The Lowell Observatory "Conference on The Role of Small Telescopes in Modern Astronomy" and I also recommend the article by M J Disney on "Incoherent Arrays" in Optical Telescopes of the Future, ESO, 1978.
I attended the Lowell conference in 1996 --Lief Robinson from Sky and Telescope and I were the only two non-institutional attendees.
It was an interesting gathering and produced many interesting papers and I detected a definite "rah rah" atmosphere among the attendees -- they believed that yes, smaller telescopes did have an important role.
I think it is fair to say, however, that when the conference ended the attendees left and resumed their "day jobs": there had been much discussion and even agreement, but there weren't many "action items". And the state of the astronomical world did not change; smaller telescopes continued to be decommissioned and the astronomical community became increasingly divided into the "haves" and the "have nots".
At this point I began to think about the technology environment of the 1990s and the changes that it was producing in telescope procurement and usage. (I was by no means early here -- much thought and much actual development had taken place in the 80s.)
In particular I thought about these technical advancements:
- The proliferation of CCD usage and how it enables Disney's "incoherent arrays"
- The commoditization of small telescopes, producing economies of scale.
- The rise of a serious amateur community, with many "amateurs" owning instruments in the 0.35 meter to one meter range.
- The computer revolution enabling remote use and "robotic" queue use of internet telescopes.
And then I became aware of a trend: the use of astronomy as a way of teaching the sciences. Organizations such as Hands on Universe and Telescopes in Education and the Faulkes Foundation were using the "hook" of remote telescope observation to create science projects in the high schools. Kids seem to have an interest in astronomy -- perhaps due to seeing cool Hubble images in the magazines -- and astronomy can lead them into physics, into statistics, into the sciences.
These two areas interact: a "smaller" telescope is the right size for a science project.
A related aspect is the proliferation of idle telescopes. Consider all of those commodity half-meter-ish telescopes out there in the world; a considerable fraction of them are on the Internet. They are akin to the idle computers that SETI At Home has harnessed for computation.
Can astronomy do the same thing? For a number of years the Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy (SARA) maintained the North American Small Telescope Cooperative (NASTeC), a listing of owners of telescopes who would be interested in participating in collaborations (I think it was originally started at Tennessee State), and there is the Whole Earth Telescope group and the Center for Backyard Astrophysics group. Could this concept be turned into a major resource? Just as a remark, I suggest that today there is more aperture in the amateur internet-conected telescope community than there is on Mauna Kea.
I am interested in all aspects of "making telescope time available to the smaller players, both researchers and members of the educatonal system" and would be delighted to discuss them with you.
I can be reached via email as firstname.lastname@example.org.