Angular resolution

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A series of images representing the magnification of M87* with an angular size of some microarcseconds, comparable to viewing a tennis ball on the Moon (magnification from top left corner counter-clockwise to the top right corner). Event Horizon Telescope and Apollo 16.png
A series of images representing the magnification of M87* with an angular size of some microarcseconds, comparable to viewing a tennis ball on the Moon (magnification from top left corner counter−clockwise to the top right corner).

Angular resolution describes the ability of any image-forming device such as an optical or radio telescope, a microscope, a camera, or an eye, to distinguish small details of an object, thereby making it a major determinant of image resolution. It is used in optics applied to light waves, in antenna theory applied to radio waves, and in acoustics applied to sound waves. The colloquial use of the term "resolution" sometimes causes confusion; when an optical system is said to have a high resolution or high angular resolution, it means that the perceived distance, or actual angular distance, between resolved neighboring objects is small. The value that quantifies this property, θ, which is given by the Rayleigh criterion, is low for a system with a high resolution. The closely related term spatial resolution refers to the precision of a measurement with respect to space, which is directly connected to angular resolution in imaging instruments. The Rayleigh criterion shows that the minimum angular spread that can be resolved by an image forming system is limited by diffraction to the ratio of the wavelength of the waves to the aperture width. For this reason, high resolution imaging systems such as astronomical telescopes, long distance telephoto camera lenses and radio telescopes have large apertures.


Definition of terms

Resolving power is the ability of an imaging device to separate (i.e., to see as distinct) points of an object that are located at a small angular distance or it is the power of an optical instrument to separate far away objects, that are close together, into individual images. The term resolution or minimum resolvable distance is the minimum distance between distinguishable objects in an image, although the term is loosely used by many users of microscopes and telescopes to describe resolving power. As explained below, diffraction-limited resolution is defined by the Rayleigh criterion as the angular separation of two point sources when the maximum of each source lies in the first minimum of the diffraction pattern (Airy disk) of the other. In scientific analysis, in general, the term "resolution" is used to describe the precision with which any instrument measures and records (in an image or spectrum) any variable in the specimen or sample under study.

The Rayleigh criterion

Airy diffraction patterns generated by light from two point sources passing through a circular aperture, such as the pupil of the eye. Points far apart (top) or meeting the Rayleigh criterion (middle) can be distinguished. Points closer than the Rayleigh criterion (bottom) are difficult to distinguish. Airy disk spacing near Rayleigh criterion.png
Airy diffraction patterns generated by light from two point sources passing through a circular aperture, such as the pupil of the eye. Points far apart (top) or meeting the Rayleigh criterion (middle) can be distinguished. Points closer than the Rayleigh criterion (bottom) are difficult to distinguish.

The imaging system's resolution can be limited either by aberration or by diffraction causing blurring of the image. These two phenomena have different origins and are unrelated. Aberrations can be explained by geometrical optics and can in principle be solved by increasing the optical quality of the system. On the other hand, diffraction comes from the wave nature of light and is determined by the finite aperture of the optical elements. The lens' circular aperture is analogous to a two-dimensional version of the single-slit experiment. Light passing through the lens interferes with itself creating a ring-shape diffraction pattern, known as the Airy pattern, if the wavefront of the transmitted light is taken to be spherical or plane over the exit aperture.

The interplay between diffraction and aberration can be characterised by the point spread function (PSF). The narrower the aperture of a lens the more likely the PSF is dominated by diffraction. In that case, the angular resolution of an optical system can be estimated (from the diameter of the aperture and the wavelength of the light) by the Rayleigh criterion defined by Lord Rayleigh: two point sources are regarded as just resolved when the principal diffraction maximum (center) of the Airy disk of one image coincides with the first minimum of the Airy disk of the other, [1] [2] as shown in the accompanying photos. (In the bottom photo on the right that shows the Rayleigh criterion limit, the central maximum of one point source might look as though it lies outside the first minimum of the other, but examination with a ruler verifies that the two do intersect.) If the distance is greater, the two points are well resolved and if it is smaller, they are regarded as not resolved. Rayleigh defended this criterion on sources of equal strength. [2]

Considering diffraction through a circular aperture, this translates into:

where θ is the angular resolution (radians), λ is the wavelength of light, and D is the diameter of the lens' aperture. The factor 1.22 is derived from a calculation of the position of the first dark circular ring surrounding the central Airy disc of the diffraction pattern. This number is more precisely 1.21966989... ( OEIS:  A245461 ), the first zero of the order-one Bessel function of the first kind divided by π.

The formal Rayleigh criterion is close to the empirical resolution limit found earlier by the English astronomer W. R. Dawes, who tested human observers on close binary stars of equal brightness. The result, θ = 4.56/D, with D in inches and θ in arcseconds, is slightly narrower than calculated with the Rayleigh criterion. A calculation using Airy discs as point spread function shows that at Dawes' limit there is a 5% dip between the two maxima, whereas at Rayleigh's criterion there is a 26.3% dip. [3] Modern image processing techniques including deconvolution of the point spread function allow resolution of binaries with even less angular separation.

Using a small-angle approximation, the angular resolution may be converted into a spatial resolution , Δ, by multiplication of the angle (in radians) with the distance to the object. For a microscope, that distance is close to the focal length f of the objective. For this case, the Rayleigh criterion reads:


This is the radius, in the imaging plane, of the smallest spot to which a collimated beam of light can be focused, which also corresponds to the size of smallest object that the lens can resolve. [4] The size is proportional to wavelength, λ, and thus, for example, blue light can be focused to a smaller spot than red light. If the lens is focusing a beam of light with a finite extent (e.g., a laser beam), the value of D corresponds to the diameter of the light beam, not the lens. [Note 1] Since the spatial resolution is inversely proportional to D, this leads to the slightly surprising result that a wide beam of light may be focused to a smaller spot than a narrow one. This result is related to the Fourier properties of a lens.

A similar result holds for a small sensor imaging a subject at infinity: The angular resolution can be converted to a spatial resolution on the sensor by using f as the distance to the image sensor; this relates the spatial resolution of the image to the f-number, f/#:


Since this is the radius of the Airy disk, the resolution is better estimated by the diameter,

Specific cases

Log-log plot of aperture diameter vs angular resolution at the diffraction limit for various light wavelengths compared with various astronomical instruments. For example, the blue star shows that the Hubble Space Telescope is almost diffraction-limited in the visible spectrum at 0.1 arcsecs, whereas the red circle shows that the human eye should have a resolving power of 20 arcsecs in theory, though normally only 60 arcsecs. Diffraction limit diameter vs angular resolution.svg
Log-log plot of aperture diameter vs angular resolution at the diffraction limit for various light wavelengths compared with various astronomical instruments. For example, the blue star shows that the Hubble Space Telescope is almost diffraction-limited in the visible spectrum at 0.1 arcsecs, whereas the red circle shows that the human eye should have a resolving power of 20 arcsecs in theory, though normally only 60 arcsecs.

Single telescope

Point-like sources separated by an angle smaller than the angular resolution cannot be resolved. A single optical telescope may have an angular resolution less than one arcsecond, but astronomical seeing and other atmospheric effects make attaining this very hard.

The angular resolution R of a telescope can usually be approximated by

where λ is the wavelength of the observed radiation, and D is the diameter of the telescope's objective. The resulting R is in radians. For example, in the case of yellow light with a wavelength of 580  nm, for a resolution of 0.1 arc second, we need D=1.2 m. Sources larger than the angular resolution are called extended sources or diffuse sources, and smaller sources are called point sources.

This formula, for light with a wavelength of about 562 nm, is also called the Dawes' limit.

Telescope array

The highest angular resolutions for telescopes can be achieved by arrays of telescopes called astronomical interferometers: These instruments can achieve angular resolutions of 0.001 arcsecond at optical wavelengths, and much higher resolutions at x-ray wavelengths. In order to perform aperture synthesis imaging, a large number of telescopes are required laid out in a 2-dimensional arrangement with a dimensional precision better than a fraction (0.25x) of the required image resolution.

The angular resolution R of an interferometer array can usually be approximated by

where λ is the wavelength of the observed radiation, and B is the length of the maximum physical separation of the telescopes in the array, called the baseline. The resulting R is in radians. Sources larger than the angular resolution are called extended sources or diffuse sources, and smaller sources are called point sources.

For example, in order to form an image in yellow light with a wavelength of 580 nm, for a resolution of 1 milli-arcsecond, we need telescopes laid out in an array that is 120 m × 120 m with a dimensional precision better than 145 nm.


The resolution R (here measured as a distance, not to be confused with the angular resolution of a previous subsection) depends on the angular aperture : [5]

where .

Here NA is the numerical aperture, is half the included angle of the lens, which depends on the diameter of the lens and its focal length, is the refractive index of the medium between the lens and the specimen, and is the wavelength of light illuminating or emanating from (in the case of fluorescence microscopy) the sample.

It follows that the NAs of both the objective and the condenser should be as high as possible for maximum resolution. In the case that both NAs are the same, the equation may be reduced to:

The practical limit for is about 70°. In a dry objective or condenser, this gives a maximum NA of 0.95. In a high-resolution oil immersion lens, the maximum NA is typically 1.45, when using immersion oil with a refractive index of 1.52. Due to these limitations, the resolution limit of a light microscope using visible light is about 200  nm. Given that the shortest wavelength of visible light is violet (),

which is near 200 nm.

Oil immersion objectives can have practical difficulties due to their shallow depth of field and extremely short working distance, which calls for the use of very thin (0.17 mm) cover slips, or, in an inverted microscope, thin glass-bottomed Petri dishes.

However, resolution below this theoretical limit can be achieved using super-resolution microscopy. These include optical near-fields (Near-field scanning optical microscope) or a diffraction technique called 4Pi STED microscopy. Objects as small as 30 nm have been resolved with both techniques. [6] [7] In addition to this Photoactivated localization microscopy can resolve structures of that size, but is also able to give information in z-direction (3D).

List of telescopes and arrays by angular resolution

NameImageAngular resolution (arc seconds) Wavelength TypeSiteYear
Global mm-VLBI Array (successor to the Coordinated Millimeter VLBI Array)0.000012 (12 μas)radio (at 1.3 cm) very long baseline interferometry array of different radio telescopes a range of locations on Earth and in space [8] 2002 - 
Very Large Telescope/PIONIER Paranal and the Pacific at sunset (dsc4088, retouched, cropped).jpg 0.001 (1 mas)light (1-2 micrometre) [9] largest optical array of 4 reflecting telescopes Paranal Observatory, Antofagasta Region, Chile2002/2010 -
Hubble Space Telescope HST.jpg 0.04light (near 500 nm) [10] space telescope Earth orbit 1990 -
James Webb Space Telescope JWST.jpg 0.1 [11] infrared (at 2000 nm) [12] space telescope Sun–Earth L2 2022 -

See also


  1. In the case of laser beams, a Gaussian Optics analysis is more appropriate than the Rayleigh criterion, and may reveal a smaller diffraction-limited spot size than that indicated by the formula above.

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Diffraction</span> Phenomenon of the motion of waves

Diffraction is the interference or bending of waves around the corners of an obstacle or through an aperture into the region of geometrical shadow of the obstacle/aperture. The diffracting object or aperture effectively becomes a secondary source of the propagating wave. Italian scientist Francesco Maria Grimaldi coined the word diffraction and was the first to record accurate observations of the phenomenon in 1660.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Optics</span> Branch of physics that studies light

Optics is the branch of physics that studies the behaviour and properties of light, including its interactions with matter and the construction of instruments that use or detect it. Optics usually describes the behaviour of visible, ultraviolet, and infrared light. Because light is an electromagnetic wave, other forms of electromagnetic radiation such as X-rays, microwaves, and radio waves exhibit similar properties.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Wavelength</span> Distance over which a waves shape repeats

In physics and mathematics, wavelength or spatial period of a wave or periodic function is the distance over which the wave's shape repeats. In other words, it is the distance between consecutive corresponding points of the same phase on the wave, such as two adjacent crests, troughs, or zero crossings. Wavelength is a characteristic of both traveling waves and standing waves, as well as other spatial wave patterns. The inverse of the wavelength is called the spatial frequency. Wavelength is commonly designated by the Greek letter lambda (λ). The term "wavelength" is also sometimes applied to modulated waves, and to the sinusoidal envelopes of modulated waves or waves formed by interference of several sinusoids.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Beam divergence</span> How much a beam expands as it travels

In electromagnetics, especially in optics, beam divergence is an angular measure of the increase in beam diameter or radius with distance from the optical aperture or antenna aperture from which the beam emerges. The term is relevant only in the "far field", away from any focus of the beam. Practically speaking, however, the far field can commence physically close to the radiating aperture, depending on aperture diameter and the operating wavelength.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Numerical aperture</span> Characteristic of an optical system

In optics, the numerical aperture (NA) of an optical system is a dimensionless number that characterizes the range of angles over which the system can accept or emit light. By incorporating index of refraction in its definition, NA has the property that it is constant for a beam as it goes from one material to another, provided there is no refractive power at the interface. The exact definition of the term varies slightly between different areas of optics. Numerical aperture is commonly used in microscopy to describe the acceptance cone of an objective, and in fiber optics, in which it describes the range of angles within which light that is incident on the fiber will be transmitted along it.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Optical telescope</span> Telescope for observations with visible light

An optical telescope is a telescope that gathers and focuses light mainly from the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum, to create a magnified image for direct visual inspection, to make a photograph, or to collect data through electronic image sensors.

Fourier optics is the study of classical optics using Fourier transforms (FTs), in which the waveform being considered is regarded as made up of a combination, or superposition, of plane waves. It has some parallels to the Huygens–Fresnel principle, in which the wavefront is regarded as being made up of a combination of spherical wavefronts whose sum is the wavefront being studied. A key difference is that Fourier optics considers the plane waves to be natural modes of the propagation medium, as opposed to Huygens–Fresnel, where the spherical waves originate in the physical medium.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Diffraction-limited system</span> Optical system with resolution performance at the instruments theoretical limit

In optics, any optical instrument or system – a microscope, telescope, or camera – has a principal limit to its resolution due to the physics of diffraction. An optical instrument is said to be diffraction-limited if it has reached this limit of resolution performance. Other factors may affect an optical system's performance, such as lens imperfections or aberrations, but these are caused by errors in the manufacture or calculation of a lens, whereas the diffraction limit is the maximum resolution possible for a theoretically perfect, or ideal, optical system.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Airy disk</span> Diffraction pattern in optics

In optics, the Airy disk and Airy pattern are descriptions of the best-focused spot of light that a perfect lens with a circular aperture can make, limited by the diffraction of light. The Airy disk is of importance in physics, optics, and astronomy.

In optics, the Fraunhofer diffraction equation is used to model the diffraction of waves when plane waves are incident on a diffracting object, and the diffraction pattern is viewed at a sufficiently long distance from the object, and also when it is viewed at the focal plane of an imaging lens. In contrast, the diffraction pattern created near the diffracting object and is given by the Fresnel diffraction equation.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Point spread function</span> Response in an optical imaging system

The point spread function (PSF) describes the response of a focused optical imaging system to a point source or point object. A more general term for the PSF is the system's impulse response; the PSF is the impulse response or impulse response function (IRF) of a focused optical imaging system. The PSF in many contexts can be thought of as the extended blob in an image that represents a single point object, that is considered as a spatial impulse. In functional terms, it is the spatial domain version of the optical transfer function (OTF) of an imaging system. It is a useful concept in Fourier optics, astronomical imaging, medical imaging, electron microscopy and other imaging techniques such as 3D microscopy and fluorescence microscopy.

Optical resolution describes the ability of an imaging system to resolve detail, in the object that is being imaged. An imaging system may have many individual components, including one or more lenses, and/or recording and display components. Each of these contributes to the optical resolution of the system; the environment in which the imaging is done often is a further important factor.

The spectral resolution of a spectrograph, or, more generally, of a frequency spectrum, is a measure of its ability to resolve features in the electromagnetic spectrum. It is usually denoted by , and is closely related to the resolving power of the spectrograph, defined as

The Fresnel number (F), named after the physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel, is a dimensionless number occurring in optics, in particular in scalar diffraction theory.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Near-field scanning optical microscope</span>

Near-field scanning optical microscopy (NSOM) or scanning near-field optical microscopy (SNOM) is a microscopy technique for nanostructure investigation that breaks the far field resolution limit by exploiting the properties of evanescent waves. In SNOM, the excitation laser light is focused through an aperture with a diameter smaller than the excitation wavelength, resulting in an evanescent field on the far side of the aperture. When the sample is scanned at a small distance below the aperture, the optical resolution of transmitted or reflected light is limited only by the diameter of the aperture. In particular, lateral resolution of 6 nm and vertical resolution of 2–5 nm have been demonstrated.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">High-resolution transmission electron microscopy</span>

High-resolution transmission electron microscopy is an imaging mode of specialized transmission electron microscopes that allows for direct imaging of the atomic structure of samples. It is a powerful tool to study properties of materials on the atomic scale, such as semiconductors, metals, nanoparticles and sp2-bonded carbon. While this term is often also used to refer to high resolution scanning transmission electron microscopy, mostly in high angle annular dark field mode, this article describes mainly the imaging of an object by recording the two-dimensional spatial wave amplitude distribution in the image plane, similar to a "classic" light microscope. For disambiguation, the technique is also often referred to as phase contrast transmission electron microscopy, although this term is less appropriate. At present, the highest point resolution realised in high resolution transmission electron microscopy is around 0.5 ångströms (0.050 nm). At these small scales, individual atoms of a crystal and defects can be resolved. For 3-dimensional crystals, it is necessary to combine several views, taken from different angles, into a 3D map. This technique is called electron tomography.

The Strehl ratio is a measure of the quality of optical image formation, originally proposed by Karl Strehl, after whom the term is named. Used variously in situations where optical resolution is compromised due to lens aberrations or due to imaging through the turbulent atmosphere, the Strehl ratio has a value between 0 and 1, with a hypothetical, perfectly unaberrated optical system having a Strehl ratio of 1.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Contrast transfer function</span>

The contrast transfer function (CTF) mathematically describes how aberrations in a transmission electron microscope (TEM) modify the image of a sample. This contrast transfer function (CTF) sets the resolution of high-resolution transmission electron microscopy (HRTEM), also known as phase contrast TEM.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sparrow's resolution limit</span>

Sparrow's resolution limit is an estimate of the angular resolution limit of an optical instrument.

Optical units are dimensionless units of length used in optical microscopy. They are used to express distances in terms of the numerical aperture of the system and the wavelength of the light used for observation. Using these units allows comparison of the properties of different microscopes. For example, the diameter of the first minimum of the Airy disk is always 7.6 optical units in the image plane of a diffraction limited microscope.


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