Refracting telescope

Refracting telescope

A refracting or refractor telescope is a dioptric telescope that uses a lens as its objective to form an image. The refracting telescope design was originally used in spy glasses and astronomical telescopes but is also used in other devices such as binoculars and long or telephoto camera lenses.


Refractors were the earliest type of optical telescope. The first practical refracting telescopes appeared in the Netherlands in about 1608, and were credited to three individuals, Hans Lippershey and Zacharias Janssen, spectacle-makers in Middelburg, and Jacob Metius of Alkmaar also known as Jacob Adriaanszoon. Galileo, happening to be in Venice in about the month of May 1609, heard of the invention and constructed a much improved version of his own based on his understanding of the effects of refraction. Galileo then communicated the details of his invention to the public, and presented the instrument itself to the Doge Leonardo Donato, sitting in full council. Galileo may thus claim to have invented the refracting telescope independently, but not until he had heard that others had done so.

Refracting telescope designs

All refracting telescopes use the same principles. The combination of an objective lenses (1) and some type of eyepiece (2) is used to gathered more light than the human eye could collect on its own, focus it (5), and present the viewer with a brighter, clearer, and magnified virtual image (6). The objective in a refracting telescope refracts or bends light. This refraction causes parallel light rays to converge at a focal point; while those which were not parallel converge upon a focal plane. Refracting telescopes can come in many different configurations to correct for image orientation and types of aberration. Because the image was formed by the bending of light, or refraction, these telescopes are called refracting telescopes or refractors.

Galilean telescope

The original design Galileo came up with in 1608 is commonly called a Galilean telescope. It uses a convex objective lens and a concave eyepiece lens. Galilean telescopes produce upright images.

Galileo’s best telescope magnified objects about 30 times. Because of flaws in its design, such as the shape of the lens, the images were blurry and distorted. Despite these flaws, the telescope was still good enough for Galileo to explore the sky. The Galilean telescope was the first to see the planet jupiter and its moons.

Keplerian Telescope

The Keplerian Telescope, invented by Johannes Kepler in 1611, is an improvement on Galileo's design. It uses a convex lens as the eyepiece instead of Galileo's concave one. The advantage of this arrangement is the rays of light emerging from the eyepiece are converging. This allows for a much wider field of view and greater eye relief but the image for the viewer is inverted. Considerably higher magnifications can be reached with this design but to overcome aberrations the simple objective lens needs to have a very high f-ratio (Johannes Hevelius built one with a 45 m (150 ft) focal length). The design also allows for use of a micrometer at the focal plane (used to determining the angular size and/or distance between objects observed).

Achromatic refractors

The Achromatic refracting lens was invented in 1733 by an English barrister named Chester Moore Hall although it was independently invented and patented by John Dollond around 1758. The design overcame the need for very long focal lengths in refracting telescopes by using an objective made of two pieces of glass with different dispersion, "crown" and "flint glass", to limit the effects of chromatic and spherical aberration. Each side of each piece is ground and polished, and then the two pieces are assembled together. Achromatic lenses are corrected to bring two wavelengths (typically red and blue) into focus in the same plane.

Apochromatic refractors

Apochromatic refractors have objectives built with special, extra-low dispersion materials. They are designed to bring three wavelengths (typically red, green, and blue) into focus in the same plane. The residual color error (secondary spectrum) can be up to an order of magnitude less than that of an achromatic lens. Such telescopes contain elements of fluorite or special, extra-low dispersion (ED) glass in the objective and produce a very crisp image that is virtually free of chromatic aberration. Such telescopes are sold in the high-end amateur telescope market. Apochromatic refractors are available with objectives of up to 553 mm in diameter, but most are between 80 and 152 mm.

Technical considerations

Refractors have been criticized for their relatively high-degree of residual chromatic and spherical aberration. This affects shorter focal lengths more than longer ones. A 4" achromatic refractor is likely to show considerable color fringing (generally a purple halo around bright objects). A 4" 16 will have little color fringing.

In very large apertures, there is also a problem of lens sagging, a result of gravity deforming glass. Since a lens can only be held in place by its edge, the center of a large lens will sag due to gravity, distorting the image it produces. The largest practical lens size in a refracting telescope is around 1 meter.

There is a further problem of glass defects, striae or small air bubbles trapped within the glass. In addition, glass is opaque to certain wavelengths, and even visible light is dimmed by reflection and absorption when it crosses the air-glass interfaces and passes through the glass itself. Most of these problems are avoided or diminished by using reflecting telescopes, that can be made in far larger apertures.

Notable refracting telescopes

See also


External links

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