General Astronomy/Telescopes/Basic Optics
Although the Greek origin of the word telescope means far-seeing, "see something far away" is not a good description of the function of a telescope. If an object is bright enough, no matter how far it is, we can see it. In fact, telescopes serve three main functions:
- light collection
Before understanding how telescopes work to achieve these three goals, we take a pause here and study some principals that the optics work.
Reflection and Refraction
The most primitive type of a telescope is a refracting telescope (also called a refractor), which is used by Galileo back in the 1600's. Later, Newton designed and built a reflecting telescope (also called a reflector) making use of mirrors. We first focus on refracting telescopes. A basic refractor consists of a converging lens which focus light onto the focal plane at which detectors and instruments are then placed. As discussed in the previous chapter, the path a light ray passing through a lens can be understood by the Snell's law of refraction:
Light Gathering Power
Since most objects in the sky are very dim, a telescope effectively collects and converges light for our viewing. How dim are they? A brief calculation helps explain.
The Sun is at a distance of 1 AU (~1.5e+11 m) away, the light coming out "spread" over a spherical surface (actually it is the energy that spreads over a surface, which we call the flux). Suppose we have a telescope with a 2 m (diameter) aperture, then the fraction of light collected from the Sun is
For objects beyond the solar system, they are millions, if not billions, times further away from us. Therefore, astronomers prefer to build larger telescopes for greater light collecting power.