guiding the selection and testing a telescope


“O telescope, instrument of much knowledge, more precious than any scepter! Is not he who holds thee in his hand made king and lord of the works of God?”—John Kepler. If the pure and elevated pleasure to be derived from the possession and use of a good telescope of three, four, five, or six inches aperture were generally known, I am certain that no instrument of science would be more commonly found in the homes of intelligent people. The writer, when a boy, discovered unexpected powers in a pocket telescope(telescopic or spotting scope hybrid telescopic) not more than fourteen inches long when extended, and magnifying ten or twelve times. It became his dream, which was afterward realized, to possess a more powerful telescope, a real astronomical glass, with which he could see the beauties of the double stars, the craters of the moon, the spots on the sun, the belts and satellites of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, the extraordinary shapes of the nebulæ, the crowds of stars in the Milky Way, and the great stellar clusters. And now he would do what he can to persuade others, who perhaps are not aware how near at hand it lies, to look for themselves into the wonder-world of the astronomers.

There is only one way in which you can be sure of getting a good telescope. First, decide how large a glass you are to have, then go to a maker of established reputation, fix upon the price you are willing to pay—remembering that good work is never cheap—and finally see that the instrument furnished to you answers the proper tests for a telescope of its size. There are telescopes and telescopes. Occasionally a rare combination of perfect homogeneity in the material, complete harmony between the two kinds of glass of which the objective is composed, and lens surfaces whose curves are absolutely right, produces a telescope whose owner would part with his last dollar sooner than with it. Such treasures of the lens-maker’s art can not, perhaps, be commanded at will, yet, they are turned out with increasing frequency, and the best artists are generally able, at all times, to approximate so closely to perfection that any shortcoming may be disregarded. In what is said above I refer, of course, to the refracting telescope, which is the form of instrument that I should recommend to all amateurs in preference to the reflector. But, before proceeding further, it may be well to recall briefly the principal points of difference between these two kinds of telescopes. The purpose of a telescope of either description is, first, to form an image of the object looked at by concentrating at a focus the rays of light proceeding from that object. The refractor achieves this by means of acarefully shaped lens, called the object glass, or objective.


The reflector, on the other hand, forms the image at the focus of a concave mirror. A very pretty little experiment, which illustrates these two methods of forming an optical image, and, by way of corollary, exemplifies the essential difference between refracting and reflecting telescopes, may be performed by any one who possesses a reading glass and a magnifying hand mirror. In a room that is not too brightly illuminated pin a sheet of white paper on the wall opposite to a window that, by preference, should face the north, or away from the position of the sun. Taking first the reading glass, hold it between the window and the wall parallel to the sheet of paper, and a foot or more distant from the latter. By moving it to and fro a little you will be able to find a distance, corresponding to the focal length of the lens, at which a picture of the window is formed on the paper. This picture, or image, will be upside down, because the rays of light cross at the focus. By moving the glass a little closer to the wall you will cause the picture of the window to become indistinct, while a beautiful image of the houses, trees, or other objects of the outdoor world beyond, will be formed upon the paper. We thus learn that the distance of the image from the lens varies with the distance of the object whose image is formed. In precisely a similar manner an image is formed at the focus of the object glass of a refracting telescope.

Take next your magnifying or concave mirror, and detaching the sheet of paper from the wall, hold it nearly in front of the mirror between the latter and the window. When you have adjusted the distance to the focal length of the mirror, you will see an image of the window projected upon the paper, and by varying the distance, as before, you will be able to produce, at will, pictures of nearer or more remote objects. It is in this way that images are formed at the focus of the mirror of a reflecting telescope. Now, you will have observed that the chief apparent difference between these two methods of forming an image of distant objects is that in the first case the rays of light, passing through the transparent lens, are brought to a focus on the side opposite to that where the real object is, while in the second case the rays, being reflected from the brilliant surface of the opaque mirror, come to a focus on the same side as that on which the object itself is. From this follows the most striking difference in the method of using refracting and reflecting telescopes. In the refractor the observer looks toward the object; in the reflector he looks away from it. Sir William Herschel made his great discoveries with his back to the sky. He used reflecting telescopes. This principle, again, can be readily illustrated by means of our simple experiment with a reading glass and a magnifying mirror. Hold the reading glass between the eye and a distant object with one hand, and with the other hand place a smaller lens such as a pocket magnifier, near the eye, and in line with the reading glass. Move the two carefully until they are at a distance apart equal to the sum of the focal lengths of the lenses, and you will see a magnified image of the distant object. In other words, you have constructed a simple refracting telescope. Then take the magnifying mirror, and, turning your back to the object to be looked at, use the small lens as before—that is to say, hold it between your eye and the mirror, so that its distance from the latter is equal to the sum of the focal lengths of the mirror and the lens, and you will see again a magnified image of the distant object.

This time it is a reflecting telescope that you hold in your hands. The magnification of the image reminds us of the second purpose which is subserved by a telescope. A telescope, whether refracting or reflecting, consists of two essential parts, the first being a lens, or a mirror, to form an image, and the second a microscope, called an eyepiece, to magnify the image. The same eyepieces will serve for either the reflector or the refractor. But in order that the magnification may be effective, and serve to reveal what could not be seen without it, the image itself must be as nearly perfect as possible; this requires that every ray of light that forms the image shall be brought to a point in the image precisely corresponding to that from which it emanates in the real object. In reflectors this is effected by giving a parabolic form to the concave surface of the mirror. In refractors there is a twofold difficulty to be overcome. In the first place, a lens with spherical surfaces does not bend all the rays that pass through it to a focus at precisely the same distance. The rays that pass near the outer edge of the lens have a shorter focus than that of the rays which pass near the center of the lens; this is called spherical aberration. A similar phenomenon occurs with a concave mirror whose surface is spherical. In that case, as we have seen, the difficulty is overcome by giving the mirror a parabolic instead of a spherical form. In an analogous way the spherical aberration of a lens can be corrected by altering its curves, but the second difficulty that arises with a lens is not so easily disposed of: this is what is called chromatic aberration. It is due to the fact that the rays belonging to different parts of the spectrum have different degrees of refrangibility, or, in other words, that they come to a focus at different distances from the lens; and this is independent of the form of the lens. The blue rays come to a focus first, then the yellow, and finally the red. It results from this scattering of the spectral rays along the axis of the lens that there is no single and exact focus where all meet, and that the image of a star, for instance, formed by an ordinary lens, even if the spherical aberration has been corrected, appears blurred and discolored. There is no such difficulty with a mirror, because there is in that case no refraction of the light, and consequently no splitting up of the elements of the spectrum.

In order to get around the obstacle formed by chromatic aberration it is necessary to make the object glass of a refractor consist of two lenses, each composed of a different kind of glass. One of the most interesting facts in the history of the telescope is that Sir Isaac Newton could see no hope that chromatic aberration would be overcome, and accordingly turned his attention to the improvement of the reflecting telescope and devised a form of that instrument which still goes under his name. And even after Chester More Hall in 1729, and John Dollond in 1757, had shown that chromatic aberration could be nearly eliminated by the combination of a flint-glass lens with one of crown glass, William Herschel, who began his observations in 1774, devoted his skill entirely to the making of reflectors, seeing no prospect of much advance in the power of refractors. A refracting telescope which has been freed from the effects of chromatic aberration is called achromatic. The principle upon which its construction depends is that by combining lenses of different dispersive power the separation of the spectral colors in the image can be corrected while the convergence of the rays of light toward a focus is not destroyed. Flint glass effects a greater dispersion than crown glass nearly in the ratio of three to two. The chromatic combination consists of a convex lens of crown backed by a concave, or plano-concave, lens of flint. When these two lenses are made of focal lengths which are directly proportional to their dispersions, they give a practically colorless image at their common focus.


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