Resolving and Magnifying Power

The resolution of the telescope is a measure of how sharply defined the details of the image can be. The laws of diffraction make a certain amount of blurring unavoidable, because of the wave nature of light. If two stars are very close, a given telescope may not be able to separate them into two distinct points. The smallest angular separation that can be unambiguously distinguished is called the resolving power of the telescope and is proportional to the ratio of the wavelength of light being observed to the diameter of the telescope. Thus, the larger the diameter, the smaller the minimum angular separation and the higher the resolving power.

The magnification, or power, of the telescope is relevant only when an eyepiece, or ocular, is used to magnify the image for visual inspection. The angular size of the virtual image seen by the observer will be larger than the actual angular size of the object. The ratio of these two sizes is the magnifying power and is equal to the ratio of the focal lengths of the objective and ocular. Any desired magnification can be obtained with a given telescope by the use of an appropriate ocular, but beyond a point determined by the resolving power, higher magnification will reveal no further details.

In addition to diffraction, other defects limit the performance of real optical systems. The most serious of these for lenses is chromatic aberration. Other defects include coma, astigmatism, distortion, and curvature of field. In general, it is easier to eliminate these faults in the reflector than in the refractor.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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