Why do small mirror imperfections matter with modern computers
Modern telescopes go to great lengths to have perfectly shaped parabolic mirrors. My question is, why go to the trouble of having a perfect mirror? Why not take a mirror roughly the right shape, and then correct for the distortion using computers?
correct for the distortion
An imperfect mirror does not produce a distorted image - it produces a blurry image. With light-field sensors and phase imaging, one could possibly correct for the blur, but it is much more challenging problem than normal lens distortion correction.
Distortion refers to a systematic change in how shapes are projected in an image. It results from a lens or mirror with good, accurate geometry that just does not produce a rectilinear projection.
Random imperfections in a mirror do not cause distortion. Every point in the surface of a mirror contributes to every pixel in the result image. If a single part of the mirror is at slightly wrong angle, it does not cause a distortion in one point of the image. Instead, it projects the same image at a slightly different alignment on the same sensor. (1)
In the case of a starfield, this would cause ghost images of very dim stars to appear next to the real stars. Repeat this for a thousand imperfections, and the result is just blurry dots. Deconvolution is a process that can be used to remove blurriness, but noise and other uncertainties limit its effectiveness.
(1) This may be a bit unintuitive if you think about funhouse mirrors where the image is distorted. Those work differently because they act the part of a planar mirror, where indeed each part of image is reflected by a single part of a mirror. But planar mirrors cannot form an image by themselves, instead the lens in your eye is the critical component of the image accuracy.
Every spot on a funhouse mirror actually reflects a pupil-sized region of the actual image, which is larger than a single point, but generally small relative to the size of the mirror. In many mirror-based cameras, however, the effective pupil size is often essentially the same as the diameter of the biggest mirror.