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Telescopes. How do they work?. 1. History. 2. Lenses & Hardware. 3. Reflecting Telescopes. 4. Refracting Telescopes. History. Hans Lippershey Middleburg, Holland invented the refractor telescope in 1608 Galileo

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How do they work?

Telescopes 1271985

1. History

2. Lenses & Hardware

3. Reflecting Telescopes

4. Refracting Telescopes



  • Hans Lippershey Middleburg, Holland

    • invented the refractor telescope in 1608

  • Galileo

    • the first to use a telescope in astronomy. Galileo's designs used a combination of convex and concave lenses.

  • Kepler

    • improved the design to have two convex lenses, which made the image upside-down. Kepler's design is still the major design of refractors today, with a few later improvements in the lenses and the glass to make them.

Why can t you see an object that is far away

Why can’t you see an object that is far away?

The answer is simple: the object does not take up much space on your eye’s screen (retina).

Using a digital camera analogy, at 150 feet the writing on a dime does not cover enough pixels on your retinal sensor for you to read the writing.

This can be corrected by bending the light with lenses.



  • The lens in your eyes works like a glass lens. The light bends as it goes through a different medium.

  • Light rays are bent when they intersect glass; a curved surface can produce an image.

  • In your eye, the image is then focused at the retina.

How does this apply to telescopes

How does this apply to telescopes?

  • If you had a bigger eye, you could collect more light from the object. This image could be magnified so it stretches out over more pixels in your retina.

  • In a telescope, two pieces make this possible:

    • the objective lens (refractor telescopes) or primary mirror (reflecting telescopes)

    • the eye piece

Telescopes 1271985

  • The objective lens (in refractors) or primary mirror (in reflectors) collects lots of light from a distant object and brings that light, or image, to a point or focus.

  • An eyepiece lens takes the bright light from the focus of the objective lens or primary mirror and "spreads it out" (magnifies it) to take up a large portion of the retina. This is the same principle that a magnifying glass (lens) uses; it takes a small image on the paper and spreads it out over the retina of your eye so that it looks big.

Telescopes 1271985

When you combine the objective lens or primary mirror with the eyepiece, you have a telescope.

Again, the basic idea is to collect lots of light to form a bright image inside the telescope, and then use something like a magnifying glass to magnify (enlarge) that bright image so that it takes up a lot of space on your retina.

A telescope has two general properties

A telescope has two general properties

  • how well it can collect the light

    (the aperature)

  • how much it can magnify the image

    (the magnification)

The aperture

The Aperture

  • A telescope's ability to collect light is directly related to the diameter of the lens or mirror -- the aperture -- that is used to gather light. Generally, the larger the aperture, the more light the telescope collects and brings to focus, and the brighter the final image.



  • The telescope's magnification, its ability to enlarge an image, depends on the combination of lenses used. The eyepiece performs the magnification. Since any magnification can be achieved by almost any telescope by using different eyepieces, aperture is a more important feature than magnification

A closer look at eyepieces

A closer look at eyepieces



The purposes of the eyepiece are to:

  • produce and allow you to change the telescope's magnification

  • produce a sharp image

  • provide comfortable eye relief (the distance between your eye and the eyepiece when the image is in focus)

  • determine the telescope's field of view:

    • apparent - how much of the sky, in degrees, is seen edge-to-edge through the eyepiece alone (specified on the eyepiece)

    • true or real - how much of the sky can be seen when that eyepiece is placed in the telescope (true field = apparent field/magnification)



Filters are pieces of glass or plastic that you can place in the barrel of an eyepiece to restrict the wavelengths of light that come through in the image.

Set of filters for viewing, including a light pollution filter (left) and colored filters for enhancing contrast in planetary images.

Filters can be used to:

  • enhance the viewing of faint sky objects in light-polluted skies

  • enhance the contrast of fine features and details on the moon and planets

  • safely view the sun

There are 2 main types of telescopes

There are 2 main types of Telescopes

  • Refractor telescopes, which use glass lenses

  • Reflector telescopes, which use mirrors instead of lenses.

    Both types accomplish exactly the same thing, but in completely different ways.

Refractor telescopes

Refractor Telescopes

  • Refractors are the type of telescope that most of us are familiar with. They have the following parts:

    • a long tube, made of metal, plastic, or wood

    • a glass combination lens at the front end (objective lens)

    • a second glass combination lens (eyepiece)

  • Refracting telescopes focus light rays by bending them with glass.

Telescopes 1271985

This is the simplest telescope design you could have. A big lens gathers the light and directs it to a focal point and a small lens brings the image to your eye.

Telescopes 1271985

Refracting telescopes are

not used for astronomical

research (anymore)

because they are large

and have heavy lenses

(i.e. expensive).

Reflecting telescopes

Reflecting Telescopes

  • History:

    • Isaac Newton developed the reflector about 1680, in response to the chromatic aberration (rainbow halo) problem that plagued refractors during his time. Instead of using a lens to gather light, Newton used a curved, metal mirror (primary mirror) to collect the light and reflect it to a focus. Because the mirror reflected light back into the tube, he had to use a small, flat mirror (secondary mirror) in the focal path of the primary mirror to deflect the image out through the side of the tube, to the eyepiece; otherwise, his head would get in the way of incoming light.

    • In 1722, John Hadley developed a design that used parabolic mirrors, and there were various improvements in mirror-making. The Newtonian reflector was a highly successful design, and remains one of the most popular telescope designs in use today.

Reflecting telescopes focus light by bending them with mirrors

Reflecting telescopes focus light by bending them with mirrors

Not everything is visible

Not everything is visible…

  • Many modern day telescopes do not use visible light to collect images.

  • Radio telescopes, x-ray telescopes and infrared (IR) telescopes have become a staple of modern day astronomy, producing some amazing images.

Famous telescopes

Famous Telescopes

  • Keck Telescope

  • Kitt Peak Observatory

Very large array vla radio telescopes

Very Large Array (VLA)radio telescopes

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