Refractor vs Reflector Telescopes: Which One Should You Buy?

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Refractor vs reflector telescopes, which one should you go for? If you're stepping into the world of star gazing, then it's worth knowing which one is best before making your descion.

We've broken down the difference between the two in plain English, so you can get in the know, plus we've listed the advantages and disadvantages to each type.

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Let's get to it...those stars aren't getting any younger!

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Refractor vs Reflector Telescopes: What are the differences?

So these are the two most common types of telescopes out there, and they work in distinctly different ways to focus light.

In the battle between refractor and reflector telescopes, while one isn't nessariliy 'better' than the other, there are some key differences between the two that are worth knowing before you dive into your next purchase. Let's take a look at refractor telescopes first...

Refractor Telescopes

refractor vs reflector telescope
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Image Credit - Celestron

So refraction is the 'bending of light' that occurs when light passes through certain transparent substances.

When it comes to refractor telescopes, they use a specific type of lens designed to gather and focus light. To do this, you typically need a longer tube and you'll find that the eye-piece is located at the end, rather than on top.

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Advantages of a refractor telescope

Refractor telescopes tend require less collimation, which is the process of aligning all the components in a telecsope for the best focus.

That can be a good way to go for beginners or those who are just stepping into star-gazing.

They're also generally more lightweight, making them easier to transport.

Disadvantages of a refractor telescope

What you an get with refractor lenses is something called chromatic aberrations, which is when you may see coloured 'fringes' around the objects you're viewing.

This happens because wavelengths of light can get split and arrive at different angles. That being said, if you go for a more expensive refractor telecope, like a triplet (which have three lenses), you may be able to eliminate this issue.

You may also run into something called lens sag, which is when you get a massive lens distorting the image because of its own weight.

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Reflector Telescopes

refractor vs reflector telescope example
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Image Credit: Celestron

Reflector telescopes, as the name suggests, work by using one or more mirrors to focus light. Because of this, you'll often see the eye-piece placed at different locations on the tube, rather than sitting at the end.

The tube itself is more 'open' than with a refractor telescope, with the best reflector telescopes having very large mirrors to capture as much light as possible.

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Advantages of a reflector telescope

One big advantage is that you won't get any chromatic aberrations when using a reflector telescope.

They also tend to be a little smaller, as unlike with refractor telescopes, you don't need a longer tube to focus the light.

Reflector telescopes are said to be better for seeing galaxies on the whole.

Disadvantages of a reflector telecope

While a reflector telescope may seem like an obvious choice, the quality of the image will largely be down to the mirror used.

There are a few types of mirrors that can go into a reflective telescope: parabolic, hyperbolic, or spherical.

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Parabolic mirrors are generally used as the primary mirror, with hyperbolic mirrors designed to accurately focus light from one focal point to another.

Using this combination can be expensive, so at the lower cost end of reflector telescopes you may find that they use spherical mirrors instead.

These are not as good as parabolic and hyperbolic mirrors, and can cause something called coma aberration, which is when the image looks off-axis, almost as if they have a tail.

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While the open tube setup is great for capturing light, it does mean that your reflector telescope is exposed to the elements.

That means more cleaning, more care, and more chance of dirty mirrors and unclear images...

If you're new to star-gazing, a reflector telescope may have a bit of steep learning curve, especially as you'll need to collimate (or adjust it) before use to ensure it's giving you the best image possible.

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Reflector vs Refractor Telescopes: Which Should You Buy?

Of course, budget is something you'll want to factor in as both types of telescopes have their advantages and disadvantages at different price points. Choosing either a higher quality lens or ensuring that the mirror setup is more optimal would be a wise place to start, but there will be many good quality telescope from either side at more affordable price points.

If you're a beginner, we'd probably say starting off with a lightweight, refractor telescope could be the best way to go, as they can be moved easily and don't require much technical know-how to setup and maintain. You may get some chromatic aberration, but that shouldn't be an issue if you're just starting out.

For those who want something a bit more technical and enjoy the process of adjusting, maintaining, and just generally 'tinkering', a reflector telescope could be the best one for you. They'll require more upkeep, but the pay off means that you won't get an chromatic aberration, and you'll be able to see stars and galaxies much brighter too.