What is the Airy disk? How does it affect resolving power and brilliance?
A diffraction pattern is the physical term for what you see when looking through a telescope at a star at high power under good seeing conditions (the atmosphere is steady). Simply put, it is the concentric bull’s-eye pattern of the stellar image you see in your high-magnification eyepiece. Because even the closest stars are so very far away, they will never show a real disk or ball shape in a telescope. However, on steady nights at magnifications around 60 times the aperture of your scope in inches (for example, 240x for a 4-inch scope), you’ll see the star as a tiny disk surrounded by a concentric ring or rings. (This assumes quality optics that are properly collimated or optically aligned.) The bulls eye is called the diffraction pattern of the star and is created by the interaction of light waves from the star with the circular edge (aperture) of your lens or mirror. The central bright region is the Airy disk and the surrounding bright circle is the diffraction ring. The Airy disk becomes smaller as the aperture of the telescope gets larger. In theory, when you double aperture, you also double resolving power, since the Airy disk is only half as large. Two points of light – a double star - can be distinguished more closely with the larger scope. Since the disk is only half the diameter, it has one-fourth the area of the disk seen through the smaller telescope. In addition, when you doubled the size of the mirror or lens, you increased the area and light-gathering power of the scope by four times. So four times the light is in an area one-fourth as big and the star appears sixteen times as bright. This is why fine details in large telescopes jump out compared to the same view with a smaller telescope. The illustration below shows Airy disks for a faint double star as viewed with a 4-inch and an 8-inch telescope. (Darkness in the drawing means a brighter disk.) Look at the two drawings for 1000x. Note that the 8” disks compared to the 4” disks are smaller and much brighter, so the double star is cleanly separated, even showing a third star that would not have been visible with the smaller scope.
Created On: Feb 21 2005 09:45 AM