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Limits of Resolution: The Rayleigh Criterion

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Light diffracts as it moves through space, bending around obstacles, interfering constructively and destructively. While this can be used as a spectroscopic tool—a diffraction grating disperses light according to wavelength, for example, and is used to produce spectra—diffraction also limits the detail we can obtain in images. [link](a) shows the effect of passing light through a small circular aperture. Instead of a bright spot with sharp edges, a spot with a fuzzy edge surrounded by circles of light is obtained. This pattern is caused by diffraction similar to that produced by a single slit. Light from different parts of the circular aperture interferes constructively and destructively. The effect is most noticeable when the aperture is small, but the effect is there for large apertures, too.

(a) Monochromatic light passed through a small circular aperture produces this diffraction pattern. (b) Two point light sources that are close to one another produce overlapping images because of diffraction. (c) If they are closer together, they cannot be resolved or distinguished.

How does diffraction affect the detail that can be observed when light passes through an aperture? [link](b) shows the diffraction pattern produced by two point light sources that are close to one another. The pattern is similar to that for a single point source, and it is just barely possible to tell that there are two light sources rather than one. If they were closer together, as in [link](c), we could not distinguish them, thus limiting the detail or resolution we can obtain. This limit is an inescapable consequence of the wave nature of light.

There are many situations in which diffraction limits the resolution. The acuity of our vision is limited because light passes through the pupil, the circular aperture of our eye. Be aware that the diffraction-like spreading of light is due to the limited diameter of a light beam, not the interaction with an aperture. Thus light passing through a lens with a diameter D size 12{D} {} shows this effect and spreads, blurring the image, just as light passing through an aperture of diameter D size 12{D} {} does. So diffraction limits the resolution of any system having a lens or mirror. Telescopes are also limited by diffraction, because of the finite diameter D size 12{D} {} of their primary mirror.

Just what is the limit? To answer that question, consider the diffraction pattern for a circular aperture, which has a central maximum that is wider and brighter than the maxima surrounding it (similar to a slit) [see [link](a)]. It can be shown that, for a circular aperture of diameter D size 12{D} {}, the first minimum in the diffraction pattern occurs at θ=1.22λ/D size 12{θ=1 "." "22"λ/D} {} (providing the aperture is large compared with the wavelength of light, which is the case for most optical instruments). The accepted criterion for determining the diffraction limit to resolution based on this angle was developed by Lord Rayleigh in the 19th century. The Rayleigh criterion for the diffraction limit to resolution states that two images are just resolvable when the center of the diffraction pattern of one is directly over the first minimum of the diffraction pattern of the other. See [link](b). The first minimum is at an angle of θ=1.22λ/D size 12{θ=1 "." "22"λ/D} {}, so that two point objects are just resolvable if they are separated by the angle

θ=1.22λD, size 12{θ=1 "." "22" { {λ} over {D} } } {}

where λ size 12{λ} {} is the wavelength of light (or other electromagnetic radiation) and D size 12{D} {} is the diameter of the aperture, lens, mirror, etc., with which the two objects are observed. In this expression, θ size 12{θ} {} has units of radians.

(a) Graph of intensity of the diffraction pattern for a circular aperture. Note that, similar to a single slit, the central maximum is wider and brighter than those to the sides. (b) Two point objects produce overlapping diffraction patterns. Shown here is the Rayleigh criterion for being just resolvable. The central maximum of one pattern lies on the first minimum of the other.
Calculating Diffraction Limits of the Hubble Space Telescope

The primary mirror of the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope has a diameter of 2.40 m. Being in orbit, this telescope avoids the degrading effects of atmospheric distortion on its resolution. (a) What is the angle between two just-resolvable point light sources (perhaps two stars)? Assume an average light wavelength of 550 nm. (b) If these two stars are at the 2 million light year distance of the Andromeda galaxy, how close together can they be and still be resolved? (A light year, or ly, is the distance light travels in 1 year.)


The Rayleigh criterion stated in the equation θ=1.22λD size 12{θ=1 "." "22" { {λ} over {D} } } {} gives the smallest possible angle θ size 12{θ} {} between point sources, or the best obtainable resolution. Once this angle is found, the distance between stars can be calculated, since we are given how far away they are.

Solution for (a)

The Rayleigh criterion for the minimum resolvable angle is

θ=1.22λD. size 12{θ=1 "." "22" { {λ} over {D} } } {}

Entering known values gives

θ=1.22550×109m2.40 m= 2.80×107rad.

Solution for (b)

The distance s size 12{s} {} between two objects a distance r size 12{r} {} away and separated by an angle θ size 12{θ} {} is s= size 12{s=rθ} {}.

Substituting known values gives

s = (2.0 × 10 6 ly ) ( 2.80× 10−7 rad ) = 0.56 ly.


The angle found in part (a) is extraordinarily small (less than 1/50,000 of a degree), because the primary mirror is so large compared with the wavelength of light. As noticed, diffraction effects are most noticeable when light interacts with objects having sizes on the order of the wavelength of light. However, the effect is still there, and there is a diffraction limit to what is observable. The actual resolution of the Hubble Telescope is not quite as good as that found here. As with all instruments, there are other effects, such as non-uniformities in mirrors or aberrations in lenses that further limit resolution. However, [link] gives an indication of the extent of the detail observable with the Hubble because of its size and quality and especially because it is above the Earth’s atmosphere.

These two photographs of the M82 galaxy give an idea of the observable detail using the Hubble Space Telescope compared with that using a ground-based telescope. (a) On the left is a ground-based image. (credit: Ricnun, Wikimedia Commons) (b) The photo on the right was captured by Hubble. (credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))

The answer in part (b) indicates that two stars separated by about half a light year can be resolved. The average distance between stars in a galaxy is on the order of 5 light years in the outer parts and about 1 light year near the galactic center. Therefore, the Hubble can resolve most of the individual stars in Andromeda galaxy, even though it lies at such a huge distance that its light takes 2 million years for its light to reach us. [link] shows another mirror used to observe radio waves from outer space.

A 305-m-diameter natural bowl at Arecibo in Puerto Rico is lined with reflective material, making it into a radio telescope. It is the largest curved focusing dish in the world. Although D size 12{D} {} for Arecibo is much larger than for the Hubble Telescope, it detects much longer wavelength radiation and its diffraction limit is significantly poorer than Hubble’s. Arecibo is still very useful, because important information is carried by radio waves that is not carried by visible light. (credit: Tatyana Temirbulatova, Flickr)

Diffraction is not only a problem for optical instruments but also for the electromagnetic radiation itself. Any beam of light having a finite diameter D size 12{D} {} and a wavelength λ size 12{λ} {} exhibits diffraction spreading. The beam spreads out with an angle θ size 12{θ} {} given by the equation θ=1.22λD size 12{θ=1 "." "22" { {λ} over {D} } } {}. Take, for example, a laser beam made of rays as parallel as possible (angles between rays as close to θ= size 12{θ=0°} {} as possible) instead spreads out at an angle θ=1.22λ/D size 12{θ=1 "." "22"λ/D} {}, where D size 12{D} {} is the diameter of the beam and λ size 12{λ} {} is its wavelength. This spreading is impossible to observe for a flashlight, because its beam is not very parallel to start with. However, for long-distance transmission of laser beams or microwave signals, diffraction spreading can be significant (see [link]). To avoid this, we can increase D size 12{D} {}. This is done for laser light sent to the Moon to measure its distance from the Earth. The laser beam is expanded through a telescope to make D size 12{D} {} much larger and θ size 12{θ} {} smaller.

The beam produced by this microwave transmission antenna will spread out at a minimum angle θ=1.22λ/D size 12{θ=1 "." "22"λ/D} {} due to diffraction. It is impossible to produce a near-parallel beam, because the beam has a limited diameter.

In most biology laboratories, resolution is presented when the use of the microscope is introduced. The ability of a lens to produce sharp images of two closely spaced point objects is called resolution. The smaller the distance x size 12{x} {} by which two objects can be separated and still be seen as distinct, the greater the resolution. The resolving power of a lens is defined as that distance x size 12{x} {}. An expression for resolving power is obtained from the Rayleigh criterion. In [link](a) we have two point objects separated by a distance x size 12{x} {}. According to the Rayleigh criterion, resolution is possible when the minimum angular separation is

θ=1.22λD=xd, size 12{θ=1 "." "22" { {λ} over {D} } = { {x} over {d} } } {}

where d size 12{d} {} is the distance between the specimen and the objective lens, and we have used the small angle approximation (i.e., we have assumed that x size 12{x} {} is much smaller than d size 12{d} {}), so that tanθsinθθ size 12{"tan"θ approx "sin"θ approx θ} {}.

Therefore, the resolving power is

x=1.22λdD. size 12{x=1 "." "22" { {λd} over {D} } } {}

Another way to look at this is by re-examining the concept of Numerical Aperture (NA size 12{ ital "NA"} {}) discussed in Microscopes. There, NA size 12{ ital "NA"} {} is a measure of the maximum acceptance angle at which the fiber will take light and still contain it within the fiber. [link](b) shows a lens and an object at point P. The NA size 12{ ital "NA"} {} here is a measure of the ability of the lens to gather light and resolve fine detail. The angle subtended by the lens at its focus is defined to be θ= size 12{θ=2α} {}. From the figure and again using the small angle approximation, we can write

sinα=D/2d=D2d. size 12{"sin"α= { { {D} slash {2} } over {d} } = { {D} over {2d} } } {}

The NA for a lens is NA=nsinα size 12{ ital "NA"=n`"sin"α} {}, where n size 12{n} {} is the index of refraction of the medium between the objective lens and the object at point P.

From this definition for NA size 12{ ital "NA"} {}, we can see that

x=1.22λdD=1.22λ2sinα=0.61λnNA. size 12{x=1 "." "22" { {λd} over {D} } =1 "." "22" { {λ} over {2"sin"α} } =0 "." "61" { {λn} over { ital "NA"} } } {}

In a microscope, NA size 12{ ital "NA"} {} is important because it relates to the resolving power of a lens. A lens with a large NA size 12{ ital "NA"} {} will be able to resolve finer details. Lenses with larger NA size 12{ ital "NA"} {} will also be able to collect more light and so give a brighter image. Another way to describe this situation is that the larger the NA size 12{ ital "NA"} {}, the larger the cone of light that can be brought into the lens, and so more of the diffraction modes will be collected. Thus the microscope has more information to form a clear image, and so its resolving power will be higher.

(a) Two points separated by at distance x size 12{x} {} and a positioned a distance d size 12{d} {} away from the objective. (credit: Infopro, Wikimedia Commons) (b) Terms and symbols used in discussion of resolving power for a lens and an object at point P. (credit: Infopro, Wikimedia Commons)

One of the consequences of diffraction is that the focal point of a beam has a finite width and intensity distribution. Consider focusing when only considering geometric optics, shown in [link](a). The focal point is infinitely small with a huge intensity and the capacity to incinerate most samples irrespective of the NA size 12{ ital "NA"} {} of the objective lens. For wave optics, due to diffraction, the focal point spreads to become a focal spot (see [link](b)) with the size of the spot decreasing with increasing NA size 12{ ital "NA"} {}. Consequently, the intensity in the focal spot increases with increasing NA size 12{ ital "NA"} {}. The higher the NA size 12{ ital "NA"} {}, the greater the chances of photodegrading the specimen. However, the spot never becomes a true point.

(a) In geometric optics, the focus is a point, but it is not physically possible to produce such a point because it implies infinite intensity. (b) In wave optics, the focus is an extended region.

Section Summary

  • Diffraction limits resolution.
  • For a circular aperture, lens, or mirror, the Rayleigh criterion states that two images are just resolvable when the center of the diffraction pattern of one is directly over the first minimum of the diffraction pattern of the other.
  • This occurs for two point objects separated by the angle θ=1.22λD size 12{θ=1 "." "22" { {λ} over {D} } } {}, where λ size 12{λ} {} is the wavelength of light (or other electromagnetic radiation) and D size 12{D} {} is the diameter of the aperture, lens, mirror, etc. This equation also gives the angular spreading of a source of light having a diameter D size 12{D} {}.

Conceptual Questions

A beam of light always spreads out. Why can a beam not be created with parallel rays to prevent spreading? Why can lenses, mirrors, or apertures not be used to correct the spreading?

Problems & Exercises

The 300-m-diameter Arecibo radio telescope pictured in [link] detects radio waves with a 4.00 cm average wavelength.

(a) What is the angle between two just-resolvable point sources for this telescope?

(b) How close together could these point sources be at the 2 million light year distance of the Andromeda galaxy?

(a) 1.63×104rad size 12{1 "." "63" times "10" rSup { size 8{ - 4} } `"rad"} {}

(b) 326 ly

Assuming the angular resolution found for the Hubble Telescope in [link], what is the smallest detail that could be observed on the Moon?

Diffraction spreading for a flashlight is insignificant compared with other limitations in its optics, such as spherical aberrations in its mirror. To show this, calculate the minimum angular spreading of a flashlight beam that is originally 5.00 cm in diameter with an average wavelength of 600 nm.

1 . 46 × 10 5 rad size 12{1 "." "46" times "10" rSup { size 8{ - 5} } `"rad"} {}

(a) What is the minimum angular spread of a 633-nm wavelength He-Ne laser beam that is originally 1.00 mm in diameter?

(b) If this laser is aimed at a mountain cliff 15.0 km away, how big will the illuminated spot be?

(c) How big a spot would be illuminated on the Moon, neglecting atmospheric effects? (This might be done to hit a corner reflector to measure the round-trip time and, hence, distance.) Explicitly show how you follow the steps in Problem-Solving Strategies for Wave Optics.

A telescope can be used to enlarge the diameter of a laser beam and limit diffraction spreading. The laser beam is sent through the telescope in opposite the normal direction and can then be projected onto a satellite or the Moon.

(a) If this is done with the Mount Wilson telescope, producing a 2.54-m-diameter beam of 633-nm light, what is the minimum angular spread of the beam?

(b) Neglecting atmospheric effects, what is the size of the spot this beam would make on the Moon, assuming a lunar distance of 3.84×108m?

(a) 3.04×107rad size 12{3 "." "04" times "10" rSup { size 8{ - 7} } `"rad"} {}

(b) Diameter of 235 m

The limit to the eye’s acuity is actually related to diffraction by the pupil.

(a) What is the angle between two just-resolvable points of light for a 3.00-mm-diameter pupil, assuming an average wavelength of 550 nm?

(b) Take your result to be the practical limit for the eye. What is the greatest possible distance a car can be from you if you can resolve its two headlights, given they are 1.30 m apart?

(c) What is the distance between two just-resolvable points held at an arm’s length (0.800 m) from your eye?

(d) How does your answer to (c) compare to details you normally observe in everyday circumstances?

What is the minimum diameter mirror on a telescope that would allow you to see details as small as 5.00 km on the Moon some 384,000 km away? Assume an average wavelength of 550 nm for the light received.

5.15 cm

You are told not to shoot until you see the whites of their eyes. If the eyes are separated by 6.5 cm and the diameter of your pupil is 5.0 mm, at what distance can you resolve the two eyes using light of wavelength 555 nm?

(a) The planet Pluto and its Moon Charon are separated by 19,600 km. Neglecting atmospheric effects, should the 5.08-m-diameter Mount Palomar telescope be able to resolve these bodies when they are 4.50×109km size 12{4 "." "50" times "10" rSup { size 8{9} } `"km"} {} from Earth? Assume an average wavelength of 550 nm.

(b) In actuality, it is just barely possible to discern that Pluto and Charon are separate bodies using an Earth-based telescope. What are the reasons for this?

(a) Yes. Should easily be able to discern.

(b) The fact that it is just barely possible to discern that these are separate bodies indicates the severity of atmospheric aberrations.

The headlights of a car are 1.3 m apart. What is the maximum distance at which the eye can resolve these two headlights? Take the pupil diameter to be 0.40 cm.

When dots are placed on a page from a laser printer, they must be close enough so that you do not see the individual dots of ink. To do this, the separation of the dots must be less than Raleigh’s criterion. Take the pupil of the eye to be 3.0 mm and the distance from the paper to the eye of 35 cm; find the minimum separation of two dots such that they cannot be resolved. How many dots per inch (dpi) does this correspond to?

Unreasonable Results

An amateur astronomer wants to build a telescope with a diffraction limit that will allow him to see if there are people on the moons of Jupiter.

(a) What diameter mirror is needed to be able to see 1.00 m detail on a Jovian Moon at a distance of 7.50×108km size 12{7 "." "50" times "10" rSup { size 8{8} } `"km"} {} from Earth? The wavelength of light averages 600 nm.

(b) What is unreasonable about this result?

(c) Which assumptions are unreasonable or inconsistent?

Construct Your Own Problem

Consider diffraction limits for an electromagnetic wave interacting with a circular object. Construct a problem in which you calculate the limit of angular resolution with a device, using this circular object (such as a lens, mirror, or antenna) to make observations. Also calculate the limit to spatial resolution (such as the size of features observable on the Moon) for observations at a specific distance from the device. Among the things to be considered are the wavelength of electromagnetic radiation used, the size of the circular object, and the distance to the system or phenomenon being observed.

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