Angular resolution


Angular resolution or spatial 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.
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 — and consequently the cost — 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 of one image coincides with the first minimum of the other.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 criteria on sources of equal strength.

Related formulas


θAngular resolution (dimensionless)
λWavelength of the observed radiation (m)
DDiameter of the telescope's objective (m)