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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 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.

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 th

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 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,

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

The highest angular resolutions 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