Newton’s telescope was a game changer

Advances in telescopes

Years ago, one of the U.K. observatories had a replica of a telescope made by Sir Isaac Newton in the late 17th century.

It was marked "For use in case of emergency,” jokingly suggesting that if the big telescope failed, astronomers could use that one.

Actually, that little telescope was an astronomical game changer in its day, and is now the standard design for most optical telescopes intended for astronomy, whether in observatories or in backyards.

At some point in our young lives, most of us were given toy binoculars. They were usually made of brightly coloured plastic, with plastic lenses. The binoculars worked, but wherever there was a sharp junction between bright and dark areas, like the edge of a roof with the sky in the background, we saw colours: red on some edges and blue on others.

This is an effect known as chromatic aberration. It is due to different colours of light passing through lenses at different speeds. This means they come into focus at different places. Today, using composite lenses made from different types of glass, this problem can be corrected. However, back in Newton's day chromatic aberration was a major problem.

Newton's idea was that if the light collected by a telescope did not have to go through glass on its way to becoming an image, chromatic aberration would not happen. So he used a concave mirror.

With a lens, the light is brought to a focus behind the lens, forming an image there. With a concave mirror, the light is focussed to a point in front of the mirror, which puts the image at a very inconvenient place.

Newton added another small mirror, near the focal point. That sent the converging light, before it actually formed the image, out of the side of the telescope where the image could be easily viewed, at the expense having that small mirror blocking some of the light.

By putting the reflecting coating on the front face of the mirror, the light went through no glass and all the colours were sent to the same focus. There was no chromatic aberration. The concave mirror in Newton's telescope was not made of glass at all. He used a metallic alloy called "speculum". After all, the mirror material need not be transparent. Today, mirrors are made of special glasses or ceramics.

Another great advantage of reflecting telescopes is that mirrors can be made really big. Since light has to pass through lenses as freely as possible, the only place a lens can be supported is round the edge.

That means there is a limit to how big it can be made before it distorts under its own weight, or even breaks. It is easy to support a mirror. We can put as much support structure or other hardware as we like behind it, because the light does not go there. This leads us to another advantage. Lenses need to be high up, at the top end of a telescope. Mirrors go at the bottom end, where it is easier to deal with huge weights, The telescope is never top heavy, making it safer and easier to control.

The biggest mirror we can make is around five metres in diameter. As the diameter increases, the thickness has to increase too, in order to keep it in shape as the telescope is pointed in different directions.

Today, we have found out how to make far larger mirrors. We can make them out of relatively thin single pieces of material or out of many hexagonal panels. Behind the mirror are lots of computer-controlled actuators, which continually adjust the mirror to keep it in shape. Mirrors of around 10 metres in diameter are in use now and a telescope with a 30-metres mirror is under construction.


• On June 21 the Sun will reach the northernmost point in its yearly travels, and at noon will be higher in the sky than at any other time of the year. That will give us the day with the longest period of daylight.

• Mercury lurks low in the dawn glow, with Venus higher and brighter. To Venus' right, lie Mars and Jupiter, close together, then Saturn.

• The Moon will be new on June 28.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Ken Tapping is an astronomer born in the U.K. He has been with the National Research Council since 1975 and moved to the Okanagan in 1990.  

He plays guitar with a couple of local jazz bands and has written weekly astronomy articles since 1992. 

Tapping has a doctorate from the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands.

[email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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