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Resolution, Overcoming Resolution Limitations, Space Telescopes, Adaptive Optics, Recording Telescope Data, Modern Optical TelescopesOperation of a telescope, Types of telescope, Alternative wavelengths

The telescope is an instrument which collects and analyzes the radiation emitted by distant sources. The most common type is the optical telescope, a collection of lenses and/or mirrors that is used to allow the viewer to see distant objects more clearly by magnifying them or to increase the effective brightness of a faint object. In a broader sense, telescopes can operate at most frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves to gamma rays. The one characteristic all telescopes have in common is the ability to make distant objects appear to be closer (from the Greek tele meaning far, and skopein meaning to view).

The first optical telescope was probably constructed by a Dutch lens-grinder, Hans Lippershey, in 1608. The Figure 1. A refracting telescope. Illustration by Hans & Cassidy. Courtesy of Gale Group. following year Galileo Galilei built the first astronomical telescope, from a tube containing two lenses of different focal lengths aligned on a single axis (the elements of this telescope are still on display in Florence, Italy). With this telescope and several following versions, Galileo made the first telescopic observations of the sky and discovered lunar mountains, four of Jupiter's moons, sunspots, and the starry nature of the Milky Way. Since then, telescopes have increased in size and improved in image quality. Computers are now used to aid in the design of large, complex telescope systems.

Light gathering

The primary function of a telescope is that of light gathering. As will be seen below, resolution limits on telescopes would not call for an aperture much larger than about 30 in (76 cm). However, there are many telescopes around the world with diameters several times this. The reason for this is that larger telescopes can see further because they can collect more light. The 200 in (508 cm) diameter reflecting telescope at Mt. Palomar, California, for instance can gather 25 times more light than the 40 in (102 cm) Yerkes telescope at Williams Bay, Wisconsin, the largest refracting telescope in the world. The light gathering power grows as the area of the objective increases, or the square of its diameter if it is circular. The more light a telescope can gather, the more distant the objects it can detect, and therefore larger telescopes increase the size of the observable universe.


Magnification is not the most important characteristic of telescopes as is commonly thought. The magnifying power of a telescope is dependent on the type and quality of eyepiece being used. The magnification is given simply by the ratio of the focal lengths of the objective and eyepiece. Thus a 0.8 in (2 cm) focal length eyepiece used in conjunction with a 39 in (100 cm) focal length objective will give a magnification of 50. If the field of view of the eyepiece is 20°, the true field of view will be 0.4°.

Most large telescopes built before the twentieth century were refracting telescopes because techniques were Figure 2. Focus systems for reflecting telescopes Illustration by Hans & Cassidy. Courtesy of Gale Group. readily available to polish lenses. Not until the latter part of the nineteenth century were techniques developed to coat large mirrors which allowed the construction of large reflecting telescopes.

Refracting telescopes

A simple, uncorrected refracting telescope is shown in Figure 1.

The parallel light from a distant object enters the objective, of focal length f1, from the left. The light then comes to a focus at a distance f1 from the objective. The eyepiece, with focal length f2, is situated a distance f1+f2 from the objective such that the light exiting the eyepiece is parallel. Light coming from a second object (dashed lines) exits the eyepiece at an angle equal to f1/f2 times the angle of the light entering.

Refracting telescopes, i.e. telescopes which use lenses, can suffer from problems of chromatic and other aberrations, which reduce the quality of the image. In order to correct for these, multiple lenses are required, much like the multiple lens systems in a camera lens unit. The advantages of the refracting telescope include having no central "stop" or other diffracting element in the path of light as it enters the telescope, and the alignment and transmission characteristics are stable over long periods of time. However the refracting telescope can have low overall transmission due to reflection at the surface of all the optical elements and the largest refractor ever built has a diameter of only 40 in (102 cm): lenses of a larger diameter will tend to distort under their own weight and give a poor image. Additionally, each lens needs to have both sides polished perfectly and be made from material which is of highly uniform optical quality throughout its entire volume.

Reflecting telescopes

All large telescopes, both existing and planned, are of the reflecting variety. Reflecting telescopes have several advantages over refracting designs. First, the reflecting material (usually aluminum), deposited on a polished surface, has no chromatic aberration. Second, the whole system can be kept relatively short by folding the light path, as shown in the Newtonian and Cassegrain designs below. Third, the objectives can be made very large, since there is only one optical surface to be polished to high tolerance, the optical quality of the mirror substrate is unimportant and the mirror can be supported from the back to prevent bending. The disadvantages of reflecting systems are 1) alignment is more critical than in refracting systems, resulting in the use of complex adjustments for aligning the mirrors and the use of temperature insensitive mirror substrates and 2) the secondary or other auxiliary mirrors are mounted on a support structure which occludes part of the primary mirror and causes diffraction.

Figure 3. Adaptive optical telescope system. Illustration by Hans & Cassidy. Courtesy of Gale Group.

Figure 2 shows four different focusing systems for reflecting telescopes.

These are a) the prime focus, where the detector is simply placed at the prime focus of the mirror; b) the Newtonian, where a small, flat mirror reflects the light out to the side of the telescope; c) the Cassegrain, where the focus is located behind the plane of the primary mirror through a hole in its center and d) the Coudé, where the two flat mirrors provide a long focal length path as shown.

Catadioptric telescopes

Catadioptric telescopes use a combination of lenses and mirrors in order to obtain some of the advantages of both. The best known type of catadioptric is the Schmidt telescope or camera, which is usually used to image a wide field of view for large area searches. The lens in this system is very weak and is commonly referred to as a corrector-plate.

Most of the discussion so far has been concerned with optical telescopes operating in the range 300 nm-1100 nm. However, valuable information is contained in the radiation reaching us at different wavelengths and telescopes have been built to cover wide ranges of operation, including radio and millimeter waves, infrared, ultraviolet, x rays, and gamma rays.

Infrared telescopes

Infrared telescopes (operating from 1-1000 æm) are particularly useful for examining the emissions from gas clouds. Since water vapor in the atmosphere can absorb some of this radiation, it is especially important to locate infrared telescopes in high altitudes or in space. In 1983, NASA launched the highly successful Infrared Astronomical Satellite which performed an all-sky survey, revealing a wide variety of sources and opening up new avenues of astrophysical discovery. With the improvement in infrared detection technology in the 1980s, the 1990s will see several new infrared telescopes, including the Infrared Optimized Telescope, an 26 ft (8 m) diameter facility, on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

Several methods are used to reduce the large thermal background which makes viewing infrared difficult, including the use of cooled detectors and dithering the secondary mirror. This latter technique involves pointing the secondary mirror alternatively at the object in question and then at a patch of empty sky. Subtracting the second signal from the first results in the removal of most of the background thermal (infrared) noise received from the sky and the telescope itself, thus allowing the construction of a clear signal.

Regardless of design (i.e., the most common basic conbinations of lens and mirrors are shown above), the most important function of telescope is not to magnify but rather to gather light. Illustration by Argosy. The Gale Group.

Radio telescopes

Radio astronomy was developed following World War II, using the recently developed radio technology to look at radio emissions from the sky. The first radio telescopes were very simple, using an array of wires as the antenna. In the 1950s, the now familiar collecting dish was introduced and has been widely used ever since.

Radio waves are not susceptible to atmospheric disturbances like optical waves are, and so the development of radio telescopes over the past forty years has seen a continued improvement in both the detection of faint sources as well as in resolution. Despite the fact that radio waves can have wavelengths which are meters long, the resolution achieved has been to the sub-arc second level through the use of many radio telescopes working together in an interferometer array, the largest of which stretches from Hawaii to the United States Virgin Islands (known as the Very Long Baseline Array).

See also Spectroscopy.



Consolmagno, Guy, and Dun M. Davis. Turn Left at Orion. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Field, George, and Donald Goldsmith. The Space Telescope. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989.

Malin, David. A View of the Universe. Cambridge: Sky Publishing, 1993.

Mark, Hans, Maureen Salkin, and Ahmed Yousef, eds. Encyclopedia of Space Science & Technology. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2001.

Parker, Barry. Stairway to the Stars. New York: Plenum, 1994.

Tucker, Wallace, and Tucker, Karen. The Cosmic Inquirers. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.


Martin, Buddy, Hill, John M., and Angel, Robert. "The New

Ground-Based Optical Telescopes." Physics Today (March 1991).

Iain A. McIntyre


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Chromatic aberration

—The reduction in image quality arising from the fact that the refractive index in varies across the spectrum.


—The large light collecting lens used in a refracting telescope.

Reflecting telescope

—A telescope which uses only reflecting elements, i.e., mirrors.

Refracting telescope

—A telescope which uses only refracting elements, i.e., lenses.


—The measurement of the relative strengths of different wavelength components which make up a light signal.

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