Newtonian reflector telescopes use two mirrors – a figured primary mirror (the objective) which focuses incoming light, and a flat secondary mirror which redirects that light at an angle so that it can be viewed without getting your head stuck in the tube. The secondary mirror is only practically important – a CCD sensor could be placed directly into the path of the light focused by the objective mirror and it would capture the light without requiring an additional reflection. However, the subject of this post is the primary mirror, particularly: it’s shape.

A 2D parabola is defined by the quadratic equation \(y = ax^2 + bx + c\). If we make some simplifying assumptions (such as: its open side faces up; it “rests” on the x-axis; the focus is on the y-axis at height p) then our equation reduces to \(y = 4px^2\). The first order derivative (e.g. slope) of this equation is \({dy \over dx} = 2px\). That means, for a given focal length (and radius from the centre of the mirror), we can estimate the height of the reflective surface from the x-axis, as well as the slope at that point. These two computed values show where light is reflected when it encounters the surface of the objective mirror. Remember that incident light is reflected about the normal vector to the surface:

\(R = D – (2D \cdot N)N\)

To enable a 3D version (a paraboloid) we can take advantage of the knowledge that we only need rotate the parabola (i.e. the shape is rotationally symmetric about the vertical axis). In 3D, I chose to rotate around the z-axis.

It then becomes rather straight forward to take a solid angle of light, to compute the angles at which each incident ray encounters the parabolic reflector surface (parallax will affect closer light sources more than further away sources) and then note the points at which two or more rays converge to a single point. It turns out that the parabolic shape is ONLY able to focus light that is travelling parallel to the reflector’s primary axis. Closer sources converge further back than the stated focal length; sources at infinity converge exactly at the parabola’s focal point. Off-axis sources result in a complex out-of-focus shape when we attempt to capture them on a flat focal plane like a CCD. Looking at the distribution of focal points for a given field of view it was difficult to imagine a single transformation that might enable coma to be completely (and correctly) removed, though clearly a retail market for coma-correcting lenses abounds.

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