Telescope Terminology 101
The diameter of a telescope’s main lens or mirror — and the scope’s most important attribute. As a rule of thumb, a telescope’s maximum useful magnification is 50 times its aperture in inches (or twice its aperture in millimeters)
A lens that’s placed into the focusing tube to effectively double or triple a telescope’s focal length and, in turn, the magnification of any eyepiece used with it.
A grid system for locating things in the sky. It’s anchored to the celestial poles (directly above Earth’s north and south poles) and the celestial equator (directly above Earth’s equator). Declination and right ascension are the celestial equivalents of latitude and longitude.
A telescope with a mirror in the back and a lens in the front. The most popular designs are the Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope (SCT) and the Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope (commonly called a “Mak”).
A type of Newtonian reflector, made popular by amateur astronomer John Dobson, that uses a simple but highly effective wooden mount. Dobs provide more aperture per dollar than any other telescope design.
The part of a telescope that you look into. A telescope’s magnification can be changed by using eyepieces with different focal lengths; shorter focal lengths yield higher magnifications. Most eyepieces have metal barrels that are 1¼ inches in diameter; other standard sizes are 0.965 and 2 inches across.
Field of View
The circle of sky that you see when you look through a telescope or binoculars. Generally, the lower the magnification, the wider the field of view.
A small telescope used to aim your main scope at an object in the sky. Finderscopes have low magnifications, wide fields of view, and (usually) crosshairs marking the center of the field.
The distance (usually expressed in millimeters) from a mirror or lens to the image that it forms. In most telescopes the focal length is roughly equal to the length of the tube. Some telescopes use extra lenses and/or mirrors to create a long effective focal length in a short tube.
Focal Ratio (f/number)
A lens or mirror’s focal length divided by its aperture. For instance, a telescope with an 80-mm-wide lens and a 400-mm focal length has a focal ratio of f/5.
A glow in the night sky or around your observing site caused by artificial light. It greatly reduces how many stars you can see. Special light-pollution filters can be used with your telescope to improve the visibility of celestial objects.
The amount that a telescope enlarges its subject. It’s equal to the telescope’s focal length divided by the eyepiece’s focal length.
The device that supports your telescope, allows it to point to different parts of the sky, and lets you track objects as Earth rotates. A sturdy, vibration-free mount is every bit as important as the telescope’s optics. A mount’s top, or head, can be either alt-azimuth (turning side to side, up and down) or equatorial (turning parallel to the celestial coordinate system). “Go To” mounts contain computers that can find and track celestial objects automatically once the mounts have been aligned properly.
A telescope’s main light-gathering lens or mirror.
A telescope that gathers light with a mirror. The Newtonian reflector, designed by Isaac Newton, has a small second mirror mounted diagonally near the front of the tube to divert the light sideways and out to your eye.
A telescope that gathers light with a lens. The original design showed dramatic rainbows, or “false color,” around stars and planets. Most modern refractors are achromatic, meaning “free of false color,” but this design still shows thin violet fringes around the brightest objects. The finest refractors produced today are apochromatic, meaning “beyond achromatic.” They use expensive, exotic kinds of glass to reduce false color to nearly undetectable levels.
Material that allows safe viewing of the Sun by blocking nearly all of its light. Proper filters should completely cover the front aperture of a telescope and should never be attached to the eyepiece; they range from glass used by welders to special plastic film. White-light filters will show sunspots, while hydrogen-alpha (Hα) filters let certain red light through that reveals the Sun’s streaming hot gases.
A mirror or prism in an elbow-shaped housing that attaches to the focuser of a refractor or compound telescope. It lets you look horizontally into the eyepiece when the telescope is pointed directly overhead.
A device for aiming your telescope that shows the sky as it appears to your unaided eye, without magnification. The simplest type is a pair of notches or circles that you line up with your target. Other versions use an LED to project a red dot or circle onto a viewing window.