There are three major types of optical telescopes, classified according to the element that gathers and focuses the incoming light. In the refracting telescope, or refractor, light is bent, or refracted, as it passes through an objective lens. The objective lens is convex, i.e., thicker at the middle than the edges. Parallel light passing through the lens is refracted so that it converges to a point behind the lens, called the focus. The distance from the lens to the focus is called the focal length. In a reflecting telescope, or reflector, light is reflected by a concave mirror and brought to a focus in front of the mirror. If parallel light rays are to be reflected so that they converge to a single point, the mirror must be paraboloid in shape. Typically, a glass disk is ground to this shape and then coated with a thin layer of silver or aluminum to make it highly reflecting. The third type of telescope, the catadioptric system, focuses light by a combination of lenses and mirrors.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.