For centuries, astronomers and scientists alike have been using telescopes to study the stars and other objects that are light-years away. The problem that arises is deciding which type of telescope is best suited for what you want to do; refractor telescope vs reflector.
Refractor telescopes use lenses to gather light and form an image. This type of telescope is more compact and portable than a reflector, making it a good choice for amateur astronomers who are looking for ease of use. Reflector telescopes use mirrors to collect and focus light, which makes them ideal for observing faint objects in the night sky. There are some drawbacks to each type of telescope, so let’s look into that in more detail.
Refractors and reflectors are two of the most popular telescope types, but they also have their benefits and drawbacks. I’ve broken down each type of telescope to help you figure out which one is better suited for your needs.
Astronomy is a wonderful hobby and with the right equipment, it can be both educational and fun. But before you buy your first telescope, please first read this article so you can make your best choice between refractors vs reflectors.
In this article, you get
A solid overview of the reflecting vs refracting telescope
A brief history of telescopes, including refractor telescope vs reflector telescope
A list of the main differences between reflector vs refractor telescope
Reflector vs refractor telescope pros cons
A recommendation for how to choose between reflector telescope vs refractor
By the end of this article, you’ll be able to determine the difference between a refractor vs reflector telescope and which telescope type is best suited for your needs.
Let’s dive right in.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN REFLECTOR AND REFRACTOR TELESCOPE
There are actually three main types of telescopes: refractors, reflectors, and catadioptric. Each type has its own set of pros and cons that you should consider before making a purchase.
A refractor telescope uses a lens to collect and focus light. The tube of a refractor is usually long and slender, which can make it more difficult to balance than a reflector telescope. But this design can also result in images that are sharper and less distorted around the edges than those produced by a reflector.
Reflector telescopes are the most popular type of telescope worldwide. They use a mirror to collect and focus light, which makes them ideal for observing faint objects in the night sky.
Catadioptric telescopes are a type of telescope that uses both lenses and mirrors to capture an image. These telescopes are typically more expensive than their lens-only or mirror-only counterparts, but they offer the advantage of being shorter and more lightweight.
In addition, catadioptric telescopes come in two main varieties: Schmidt-Cassegrain and Maksutov-Cassegrain.
A Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope has a shorter focal length than a Maksutov-Cassegrain, making them better suited for wide-field views of the sky (e.g., viewing deep space objects).
Maksutov-Cassegrain telescopes, on the other hand, have a longer focal length and so can capture more detail in their images (e.g., viewing planets and other celestial bodies).
One advantage of catadioptric telescopes is that they are relatively compact. This makes it easier for you to transport and set up than larger types of telescopes.
They also tend to be less affected by atmospheric turbulence than their lens-only or mirror-only counterparts, resulting in sharper images.
In this article, I’ll mainly focus on refracting telescope vs reflecting telescope design. These are the best telescopes to get started for amateur astrophotographers or for visual astronomy.
The main focus will be on their key differences so that you can make an informed decision before you purchase a refracting vs reflecting telescope.
There’s also something interesting to learn about image orientation. Read my article Why is my telescope upside down?
HISTORY OF TELESCOPES
The history of telescopes is a long and complicated one, filled with a great deal of technical innovation and scientific discovery.
In the early 1600s, Galileo Galilei turned a homemade refracting telescope toward the night sky and made some of the most important astronomical observations in history. These included the four largest moons of Jupiter, which he discovered in 1610, as well as the phases of Venus and mountains on the Moon. For more info on Jupiter, read my article How To Find Jupiter With a Telescope.
Galileo’s discoveries overturned centuries of dogma about the heavens and paved the way for the birth of modern astronomy. But his work was just the beginning.
Over the next few centuries, astronomers built ever-larger and more powerful telescopes, culminating in today’s massive reflectors that can detect objects billions of light-years away.
Here is a brief timeline of some of the key milestones in telescope history:
Hans Lippershey patents the first refracting telescope.
Galileo Galilei improves on the homemade version of Lippershey’s telescope, increasing the magnification by a factor of about 7. To learn more about this early telescope, read my article Keplerian vs Galilean Telescope.
Johannes Kepler publishes Astronomia nova, describing his laws of planetary motion. He also designs a new type of reflecting telescope, which is later built by Isaac Newton.
William Herschel discovers Uranus, marking the first time a planet is discovered through telescopic observation.
John Dollond patents an achromatic lens, greatly improving telescopes’ image quality.
Lord Rosse completes the construction of the Leviathan of Parsonstown, the largest telescope in the world at the time.
Alvan Clark discovers Saturn’s moon Titan through telescopic observation.
Clyde Tombaugh discovers Pluto through telescopic observation.
REFRACTOR TELESCOPE OVERVIEW
When it comes to choosing a telescope, one of the main decisions you’ll need to make is reflector or refractor telescope. Both have their pros and cons, so it’s important to understand the differences before making your purchase.
If you’re interested in purchasing a refractor telescope, it’s important to keep in mind that there are two types: those with an achromatic lens and those with an apochromatic lens.
An achromatic lens is made of two different kinds of glass, which helps to reduce the amount of chromatic aberration (a type of distortion that occurs when different colors of light are not brought into focus at the same point).
Apochromatic refractors are even better at reducing chromatic aberration. As a result, they produce images that are even sharper and clearer than those produced by an achromatic lens.
Refractor telescopes are the most popular type of telescope for amateur astronomers. They are widely available and relatively inexpensive. Many refractor telescopes come with a mount that allows them to be placed on a tripod or other support, making them easy to use.
To learn more about mounts, read my articles Types of Telescope Mounts and Equatorial Telescope Mount vs AltAzimuth.
The lenses in refractor telescopes can be made from a variety of materials, including glass, plastic, and quartz. Glass is the most common material used in refractor lenses because it is strong and durable. However, glass lenses can suffer from a phenomenon called chromatic aberration.
This occurs when different colors of light are focused at different points, resulting in an image that is not as sharp as it could be. Chromatic aberration can be minimized by using a lens made from multiple pieces of glass with different properties, or by using a lens made from a material other than glass.
Refractor telescopes typically have a longer focal length than reflector telescopes of the same size. This means that they can magnify distant objects more than reflectors, but they also have a narrower field of view.
Refractors are well suited for observing planets and stars, but they are not ideal for observing large areas of the sky. If you’re interested in observing planets, then you should definitely read my article Can You See Planets With A Telescope? And for a bit of fun, read my article DIY Solar Filter Telescope.
The size of the lens is also something to consider when purchasing a refractor telescope.
Larger lenses will allow you to see fainter objects, but they will also be more expensive. So if you’re just getting started in astronomy, you may want to purchase a smaller telescope with an aperture of 3 inches or less.
But if you’re more experienced, or if you’re interested in serious astrophotography, you’ll want to purchase a larger telescope with an aperture of 8 inches or more.
RECAP OF REFRACTORS
- A refractor telescope uses a lens to gather light and form an image. This type of telescope is typically more compact and portable than a reflector, making it a good choice for amateur astronomers who are looking for ease of use.
- However, there are some drawbacks to refractors. Because they use lenses, chromatic aberration can be an issue. This occurs when different wavelengths of light are focused at different points, causing the image to appear blurry or distorted. Reflector telescopes don’t suffer from this problem since they use mirrors instead of lenses to produce a sharp image.
- Another potential downside to refractors is that they typically have longer focal lengths than reflectors, which means they aren’t able to gather as much light. This makes them less ideal for viewing faint objects in the night sky such as galaxies and nebulae. If you’re interested in observing these types of celestial objects, a reflector telescope would be a better option.
So, which type of telescope is right for you? It really depends on your specific needs and interests.
If you want something compact and affordable, go with a refractor. But if you’re more interested in observing faint deep sky objects, then a reflector may be a better option.
REFLECTOR TELESCOPE OVERVIEW
Reflector telescopes are the most popular type of telescope worldwide. Reflector telescopes are usually cheaper than refractor telescopes of the same size because they don’t require such precise optics.
The way a reflector telescope works is that it uses a concave mirror to gather light rays to a single focal point. The light is then reflected off the mirror and into an eyepiece, which magnifies the image. Reflector telescopes can have either a spherical or parabolic mirror, but parabolic mirrors produce better images.
There are two main types of reflector telescopes: Newtonian and Cassegrain. Having said that, you may have also heard the word Dobsonian. If so, please read my article Dobsonian Telescope vs Newtonian.
A Newtonian reflector is the simplest and most inexpensive type of telescope. They have a long focal length and a wide field of view, making them ideal for exploring the night sky.
A Cassegrain telescope has a shorter focal length and a narrower field of view, but they are more powerful than a Newtonian telescope and can be used for detailed astronomical observations.
For an in-depth look at Newtonians, read my article What is a Newtonian Telescope?
No matter what type of reflector telescope you choose, you’ll be able to see planets, stars, nebulae, and galaxies in incredible detail! For example, read my article Can You See Mars With A Telescope?
RECAP OF REFLECTORS
- Reflector telescopes use mirrors to collect and focus light, which makes them ideal for observing faint objects in the night sky.
- The advantage of reflector telescopes is that they are very powerful. They can be used to see objects that are very far away.
THE MAIN DIFFERENCES BETWEEN A REFRACTOR TELESCOPE VS REFLECTOR
There are several key differences between refractor and reflector telescopes that anyone interested in purchasing a telescope should be aware of.
- The main difference is how they work. A refractor telescope uses lenses to bend and focus light, while a reflector telescope uses mirrors to do the same thing. This simple difference of a reflector v refractor telescope leads to a few others.
- Because lenses are typically more expensive than mirrors, refractors tend to be more expensive than reflectors overall.
- Mirror-based telescopes require more frequent maintenance than lens-based ones due to the mirrors needing to be realigned.
- Reflectors can typically gather more light than refractors due to having a large aperture (meaning they can more easily provide a clear image), making them better suited for astrophotography and other applications where image quality is paramount.
THE PROS AND CONS OF A REFRACTOR TELESCOPE
As already mentioned, refractors are typically more expensive than reflectors, but they offer some advantages.
Refractors tend to be lighter and more compact than reflectors, making them easier to transport.
They also don’t require collimation, which is the process of aligning the mirrors in a reflector telescope. This means they require less maintenance.
Refractors are great for those who need to view objects that require high magnification, such as planets and the moon. For more info on magnification, read my article on how Barlow lenses work.
However, refractors can suffer from a phenomenon called chromatic aberration, where different colors of light are not focused in the same spot. This can result in blurry or distorted images.
Reflector telescopes do not suffer from this problem because they use mirrors instead of lenses.
- Smaller and more portable than reflectors.
- No maintenance is required (no alignment of mirrors).
- Images are usually sharper than those produced by reflectors.
- More expensive than reflectors.
- Chromatic aberration can be an issue with lower-quality lenses.
If you want a lightweight and portable telescope that’s easy to set up, a refractor might be a good choice.
THE PROS AND CONS OF A REFLECTOR TELESCOPE
Reflector telescopes are often more affordable than refractor telescopes. However, reflector telescopes can be more difficult to maintain, as mirrors can become misaligned easily. Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of a reflector telescope:
- More affordable than refractor telescopes
- Can capture more light than refractor telescopes
- Great for observing distant objects
- Can be more difficult to maintain than refractor telescopes
- Mirrors can become misaligned easily
So which type of telescope is right for you? It depends on your budget and what you plan to use it for.
HOW TO CHOOSE THE BEST TELESCOPE FOR YOU
It can be difficult to decide between a reflecting telescope vs refracting telescope. Which one is right for you?
Here are some things to consider when choosing a telescope:
- Your level of interest in astronomy: If you’re just getting started in the hobby, you may want to start with a cheaper, entry-level telescope. As you become more interested and knowledgeable, you can upgrade to a more expensive model.
- What type of objects do you want to observe: Different telescopes are better suited for observing different types of objects. For example, if you’re interested in deep-sky objects like galaxies and nebulae, a reflector telescope would be a good choice. If you’re interested in planets and stars, a refractor telescope would be a better choice.
- How much money you’re willing to spend: There is a wide range of prices for telescopes, from around $100 to $10,000 or more. It’s important to set a budget before you start shopping so that you don’t end up spending more than you can afford.
As you can see, each type of telescope has its own strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, the best type of telescope for you will depend on your specific needs and preferences.
If you know what you want to use your telescope for and what type of budget you’re working with, then choosing between reflector vs refractor telescope shouldn’t be too difficult.
I highly recommend taking a look at both types of telescopes in person before making your final decision.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
WHEN SHOULD YOU USE A REFRACTOR TELESCOPE?
If you want to take pictures of bright objects like planets and the moon, an apochromatic refractor telescope is your best choice.
SHOULD A BEGINNER GET A REFRACTOR OR REFLECTOR TELESCOPE?
Reflectors and refractors are best used for different purposes. Reflector telescopes are better for observing faint objects like nebulae and galaxies, meanwhile, refractor telescopes are usually used to observe bright objects like planets or the moon. Catadioptric telescopes can give you the best of both worlds, but I wouldn’t recommend these for beginners.
CAN YOU SEE SATURN WITH A TELESCOPE?
The short answer is yes! However, there are a few things to keep in mind. You’ll need a telescope with at least an 8-inch mirror. For more info, read my article Can You See Saturn With A Telescope?