The universe's resolution limit—why we may never have a perfect view of distant galaxies

The universe's resolution limit—why we may never have a perfect view of distant galaxies
Images of galaxies far away may be forever blurred – no matter how big the telescope. Credit: NASA/Hubble

Can you make out the dot at the bottom of this question mark? What if you stand a few metres away? The finest detail the average human eye can distinguish is about the size of a full stop seen at a distance of a metre. This is called "resolution". The best resolution for an optical system – like the eye – is roughly given by the ratio of the wavelength of the light you're viewing in and the size of the aperture that light is passing through.

In astronomy, resolution works just the same. This explains why we build increasingly large telescopes: not only can big telescopes collect more light and therefore see further, the bigger the aperture of the telescope, in principle the better the image.

But now a new study has suggested that the universe actually has a fundamental resolution limit, meaning no matter how big we build our telescopes we won't see the most distant galaxies as clearly as we would like.

The trouble with telescopes

The largest visible-light telescopes on Earth, such as the Very Large Telescopes and the Keck telescopes, have mirrors about ten metres in diameter, and there are now plans to build telescopes with diameters of 30m to 40m (so-called Extremely Large Telescopes). But there's a problem: if light from an object (be it a candle, streetlight or star) is perturbed on its journey from source to detection, then we will never be able to produce an image as sharp as the theoretical maximum, no matter how big we make the aperture.

The universe's resolution limit—why we may never have a perfect view of distant galaxies
The huge primary mirror of the James Webb Telescope.

We know light can play tricks on us. Ever looked at the bottom of a swimming pool and seen the tiles appear to ripple and dance? Or put a straw into a glass of water and seen it seemingly "break" between the air and the liquid? Light travelling to our telescopes from space has to pass through a , and this causes problems for astronomers.

Like a perfect parallel set of ocean waves encountering a submerged reef, the atmosphere disturbs the waves' propagation. For electromagnetic waves – light – this has the effect of blurring images. Unless we compensate for it, it means we never reach the theoretical maximum resolution for a . Putting telescopes in space, above the atmosphere, is one solution, but is costly. "Adaptive optics" is another, but is technically challenging.

Quantum foam

The new study, presented at the International Astronomical Union General Assembly this year, makes a prediction about the nature of space using the strange world of quantum physics. It argues that the nature of space-time on the quantum level might give rise to a kind of "fundamental resolution limit" of the cosmos, meaning there might be a cause to be concerned about how clearly future telescopes will be able to see the most distant galaxies.

The idea is as follows. According to quantum mechanics, on the smallest of scales, known as the Planck scale, some 10-35 m (yes, that's a decimal point with 34 zeros after it before you get to the one), space is described as "foamy". On those small scales, quantum physics predicts that the universe is seething with so-called "virtual particles" which pop into existence and then quickly annihilate each other – something seen constantly in particle physics experiments. However, for the briefest of moments those particles have energy and therefore – according to the famous equation E=mc2 – mass.

Any mass, no matter how small, is predicted to warp space-time. This is Einstein's description of gravity. The most dramatic example of this phenomenon in nature is in the gravitational lensing of distant galaxies by massive clusters. Photons – particles of light – travelling through such foaming space-time would be affected by such fluctuations in a similar manner to light passing through our thick and turbulent atmosphere.

Of course, the effect is tiny – almost negligible. But a photon emitted from a making the journey across the universe has to travel a long way. On this journey, the countless "phase perturbations" caused by the foamy nature of space-time might add up. Now, the prediction is that this effect is smaller than even the finest images we can currently make with the best telescopes. But – if the theory is correct – then this cosmic blurring might be apparent in images of distant galaxies made by next-generation telescopes. These include the Hubble's successor the James Webb Space Telescope, due for launch in 2018.

However, there is so far no accepted theory uniting Einstein's view of gravity with quantum mechanics – that is one of the key goals of modern physics – so we should take this prediction with a pinch of salt. Even if it is correct, its effects will only really be frustrating to the group of astrophysicists studying the detailed structure of the most distant galaxies.

What's fascinating is the implication that no matter how big we make our telescopes here on Earth or in space, there is a fundamental natural resolution limit to the universe beyond which we cannot probe, born out from quantum processes, but manifested on cosmological scales. Like a cosmic conspiracy, some of nature's secrets may be forever concealed.


Explore further

How big is the universe?

This story is published courtesy of The Conversation (under Creative Commons-Attribution/No derivatives).
The Conversation

Citation: The universe's resolution limit—why we may never have a perfect view of distant galaxies (2015, November 20) retrieved 21 September 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2015-11-universe-resolution-limitwhy-view-distant.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.
2155 shares

Feedback to editors

User comments

Nov 20, 2015
It is interesting that the journey the photons make is so long, that they get skewed by the turbulence of the "Quantum Foam". We have known that we can only see the electromagnetic radiation that reaches us, and now we theorize that the radiation that reaches us, even with a clear path, will be altered by the subatomic nature of the space it passes through. Well, it would be nice to prove that by making the "maximum resolution" telescope that we can. The one thing that fascinates me about viewing things in the distant universe is the things we cant see, beyond the Light Horizon, where the light from those objects has never reached us in the history of the universe, because they are that far away, or are being pulled away from us faster than the speed of light by the Expansion of Space (which has no speed limit).

Nov 20, 2015
Maybe the limit could be circumvented by using something other than light. E.g. gravity telescopes. I realize that sensitivities needed for detecting gravity waves are a million billion billion times more stringent than for light (so this isn't a "now" solution)...but the limit due to quantum foam might not apply.

Nov 20, 2015
Fortunately, GR is simply a math approximation of nature. Space-time is imaginary fanciful thinking.

Nov 20, 2015
there would be no resolution limit if we could move the detector to some coordinates in space, where the distance is the same and where the perturbation between the object and the detector could be zero because there are few objects in the journey of the light?

Nov 20, 2015
"Fortunately, GR is simply a math approximation of nature. Space-time is imaginary fanciful thinking."
This is truly a statement completely devoid of meaning. Absolutely NOTHING there. Some kind of information paradox in evidence?

Nov 20, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Nov 20, 2015
"...the universe is programmed machine by devine matrix which is controlled by the Creator.


And presumably this Creator emerged, fully formed, by spontaneous generation?

After that I suppose it probably built a time machine, traveled back to the instant of creation, and created the universe in which it spontaneously arose. That must be exactly what happened!

What could be more obvious? Problem solved, now all those cosmologists can retire and go fishing.

Nov 20, 2015
Fortunately, GR is simply a math approximation of nature. Space-time is imaginary fanciful thinking.

Quite possible, but it still trumps non-thinking.

Just as we have devised methods to adjust for the perturbations of the atmosphere, perhaps we will do the same for the foam.

Nov 20, 2015
The universe is programmed machine by devine matrix which is controlled by the Creator.

Ave Maria, there is the Holy Matrix again!

Nov 20, 2015
"And presumably this Creator emerged, fully formed, by spontaneous generation?"

No. The Creator is never emerged. He is eternal. Ever existed. The alpha and omega. Еternal guarantor for the absolute truth, law and justice. From Him begins and ends everything. He created the physical reality and the life in the universe. Without the intelligent beings to control this physical reality, it existence is pointless.

Nov 20, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Nov 20, 2015
"And presumably this Creator emerged, fully formed, by spontaneous generation?"

No. The Creator is never emerged. He is eternal. Ever existed. The alpha and omega. Еternal guarantor for the absolute truth, law and justice. From Him begins and ends everything. He created the physical reality and the life in the universe. Without the intelligent beings to control this physical reality, it existence is pointless.

So you believe this crap because otherwise your existence is pointless.

Nov 20, 2015
No. The Creator is never emerged
@viko
and you know this how? did she tell you? or are you just making sh*t up as you go?
Еternal guarantor for the absolute truth, law and justice
and you know this how? did she tell you? or are you just making sh*t up as you go?
...created the physical reality and the life in the universe. Without the intelligent beings to control this physical reality, it existence is pointless
and you know this how? did she tell you? or are you just making sh*t up as you go?

all false claims from you

in case you don't get the point, here it is in small words:
where is your proof?

your faerie comic tale of a book was proven to be plagiarized from other religions, plus mis-attributed (if they lie about the authors, what else would they lie about?) and it's history is definitively proven false... therefore it can't be a reference... so...
again...

where is your proof? because you've given nothing but OPINION and FALSE CLAIMS so far

Nov 20, 2015
This paper is a major failure.
The angular resolution is not going to zero as lambda/D as this is a small angle limit derived from lambda/NA. The smallest dimension we can see at any distance is lambda, the wavelength.
This requires a numerical aperture of 1, so a lens or mirror with a diameter much larger than the distance to the object.
I have no idea what resolution limit is imposed by this highly hypothetical quantum foam, but it might well be smaller than lamba over 13.7 billion ly.

Nov 20, 2015
This study presents only half of consequences. The blurring just means, that the light propagates along longer paths, it deforms the distance intervals and it also leads to lost of light energy
well i see that zephir is now using ECat as a log-in to post

she can learn after all


Nov 20, 2015
Multiple observations from multiple locations might allow for composite images to be built up to correct some of the blur from the quantum foam. It might take a huge baseline on the order of several AU to actually accomplish for objects at the edge of observability.

Nov 20, 2015
Fortunately, GR is simply a math approximation of nature. Space-time is imaginary fanciful thinking.

Space and time are abstractions and epistemological (thought/mathematical) objects that have no ontological (material) existence; so one cannot relate quantity, quality, measure etc., - in one word empirical concepts with such abstract entities, according to most philosophers of history: http://plato.stan...acetime/

"New Physics" and cosmology assigns an ontological reality to space and time, which presupposes a beginning of the universe, limited both in spatial and temporal extension. This is a continuation of the mathematical concept of space and time since Parmenides, Plato and later of theology. .

Modern cosmology has become a field of futile exercise in the abstraction of the abstraction based only on the "consistency" of mathematics without any relevance to reality and like Zeno is harvesting the paradoxes, fantasies and absurdities!

Nov 20, 2015
This study presents only half of consequences. The blurring just means, that the light propagates along longer paths, it deforms the distance intervals and it also leads to lost of light energy. These effects cannot be separated from blur in any environment. In another words, the quantum noise not only blurs the view of distant galaxies - it also induces the red shift and another effects attributed to Big Bang cosmology.
Welcome to phys.org, ECat, latest sockpuppet of Zephir. Now go away.

Nov 20, 2015
well i see that zephir is now using ECat as a log-in to post

she can learn after all


@ Captain-Skippy. That thing you asked me about is fixed now, and with something extra too just for you. (So you can do some investigating if you get bored with the usual foolishment going on around here.)

Nov 20, 2015
well i see that zephir is now using ECat as a log-in to post

And registered a slew of new voting sockpuppets starting November 13th.

*sight'...it's really sad to see with what regularity he makes even more of a fool of himeself (though it's sort of impressive the dilligence he invests in continually increasing his patheticism. )

Nov 20, 2015
That thing you asked me about is fixed now, and with something extra too just for you. (So you can do some investigating if you get bored with the usual foolishment going on around here.)
@Uncle Ira
Why, thank you very much! I appreciate it Ira
now if you wouldn't mind getting rid of zeph again... LMFAO

.

And registered a slew of new voting sockpuppets
@AA_P
Yes, and i've tracked most of them down already... shall i e-mail you the list or post it here?
it's sort of impressive...
i disagree with the impressive part... there is nothing impressive with delusional fanaticism

the whole reason Z has the socks is because she can't make a logical argument supported by scientific evidence (and even LESS reputable evidence)

so it's a faith in something that can't be proven (or already debunked) and militant bullying actions against all who refute it/refuse to accept it

sound familiar?

IOW - religious fanaticism
-this is where terrorism stems from

Nov 21, 2015
@Lex
Peace - retards.

You kick in open doors, introduce galactic smog without giving a scientific basis, use street language, make spelling mistakes.
You are not so brilliant yourself.

Nov 21, 2015
Fortunately, GR is simply a math approximation of nature. Space-time is imaginary fanciful thinking.

Space and time are abstractions and epistemological (thought/mathematical) objects that have no ontological (material) existence; so one cannot relate quantity, quality, measure etc., - in one word empirical concepts with such abstract entities, according to most philosophers of history: http://plato.stan...acetime/
---
Modern cosmology has become a field of futile exercise in the abstraction of the abstraction based only on the "consistency" of mathematics without any relevance to reality and like Zeno is harvesting the paradoxes, fantasies and absurdities!


Models without tests are allways abstractions and with tests just slighly less abstractions.

Nov 21, 2015
This paper is a major failure.
The angular resolution is not going to zero as lambda/D as this is a small angle limit derived from lambda/NA. The smallest dimension we can see at any distance is lambda, the wavelength.
This requires a numerical aperture of 1, so a lens or mirror with a diameter much larger than the distance to the object.
I have no idea what resolution limit is imposed by this highly hypothetical quantum foam, but it might well be smaller than lamba over 13.7 billion ly.


Am I really the only one here with knowledge of optics ?

Nov 21, 2015
Models without tests are allways abstractions and with tests just slighly less abstractions.


When "tests" are subjectively designed only to "prove" a preferred abstraction, by loyal and state-selected scientists and negative results are discarded as not being sensitive enough or are always doubtful; then this abstraction is a selected ideological truth by choice of a ruling class.

GR, like the epicycles or the God of theology is no longer an abstraction but an absolute truth that can no longer be refuted, no matter how strong is the case against it, as long as that particular ruling class supporting the absolute truth retains political authority.

Nov 21, 2015
Well i must say my thinking might be "out there" but our universe is vast and the cold hard fact is that we as humans are tiny and limited in comparison, as smart as we think we are, i think the sheer monstrous size of the universe and how everything works together leads me to think that there must be more out there than what our mere primitive senses can detect and understand.

Not insulting anyone, science have come far with the knowledge we've been able to gather, but we can only perceive with what we have been born with to use, and that is our limited amount of senses.

Nov 21, 2015
Well i must say my thinking might be "out there" but our universe is vast and the cold hard fact is that we as humans are tiny and limited in comparison, as smart as we think we are, i think the sheer monstrous size of the universe and how everything works together leads me to think that there must be more out there than what our mere primitive senses can detect and understand.

Not insulting anyone, science have come far with the knowledge we've been able to gather, but we can only perceive with what we have been born with to use, and that is our limited amount of senses.

What about huge telescopes, infrared and x-ray satellites, neutrino detectors, base line radio telescopes ?
We were not born with those now were we ;-) but we use them .
It is called astronomy, check it out.
https://en.wikipe...stronomy

Nov 21, 2015
"What's fascinating is the implication that no matter how big we make our telescopes here on Earth or in space, there is a fundamental natural resolution limit to the universe beyond which we cannot probe, born out from quantum processes, but manifested on cosmological scales. Like a cosmic conspiracy, some of nature's secrets may be forever concealed."

This statement reveals the faulty axiomatic viewpoint that the scientific method is based upon the limits of sense certainty. This is an erroneous assumption that in fact undermines and hinders scientific progress. See Leibniz' devastating critique of Locke: http://www.earlym...ook1.pdf

Nov 21, 2015
Not insulting anyone, science have come far with the knowledge we've been able to gather, but we can only perceive with what we have been born with to use, and that is our limited amount of senses.

I think it is the correlative and categorical capacity of our sentient nervous systems hooked to whatever senses nature happens to hook it to. Many forms of life have senses and they do not create science, technology, and arbitrary social rules not based on reality. Our senses are arbitrary, if we could see in radio and speak in hypersonics, we'd still be jerks to one another and make dumb jokes. Our limits are neural, not sensory. We expand our senses constantly, we're communicating across space via electromagnetism in a global telepathic zoo right now.

Nov 21, 2015
"...the universe is programmed machine by devine matrix which is controlled by the Creator.


And presumably this Creator emerged, fully formed, by spontaneous generation?



The Great Maker is a Boltzmann Brain?

Nov 21, 2015
Am I really the only one here with knowledge of optics ?

If I compare you to myself, then yes, you are the only one. So, I thought I'd ask you a question about this kind of thing. If, for some reason, there is a limit to the distance we can see into the universe, does the possibility exist of being able to measure warps in space right at the edge of visibility? Could space warp in a way, either through gravitational waves or something else, that would bring the objects in and out of visibility? This question is probably Super Thunder Dumb, but I'm trying to raise the level of discourse at least a little.

Nov 22, 2015
Why are there so many religious nuts and pseudoscientists attracted to this site? They ruin it for everyone else.


I like to 'ignore user' quite a bit... when I succumb to weakness and read these postings.
No use feeding the trolls.

Nov 22, 2015
Could space warp in a way, either through gravitational waves or something else, that would bring the objects in and out of visibility?

By lensing it could. Maybe you could 'cheat' the system by placing your telescope in a high gravitational field (as light travelling down a gravitational well experiences blueshift...so you'd be artificially decreasing the wavelength therefore increasing your resolution (Rayleigh criterion)), but I'm unsure whether this would actually work.

But the effect they describe in this article cannot be counteracted with lensing.

Nov 22, 2015
Lets go back to the paper. I still did not get any reaction on the following.
The paper does not mention that the resolution formula lambda/D* is a small angle approximation. The approximation works until the angle reaches the limit lambda/r, that is10^-36 for lambda~1um and a Hubble length. This is not a practical situation but it remains to be shown that the hypothetical "quantum foam" sets a larger limit.
lambda: wave length
D: lens, mirror diameter
r: distance to object.

Nov 22, 2015
We could study the foam and maybe learn something even more interesting.

Nov 22, 2015
So much for the foam:
"Chandra's X-ray detection of quasars at distances of billions of light years rules out the model where photons diffuse randomly through space-time foam"
https://en.wikipe...tum_foam

Nov 22, 2015
The "quantum foam" is not aether - just aether"ish"...:-)

Nov 22, 2015
@ WG
It is more like poly-aether !

Nov 23, 2015
Isn't quantum foam mass called "the worst theoretical prediction in the history of physics" wrong by 100 orders of magnitude? How did they avoid the "Vacuum Catastrophe" ?

Nov 23, 2015
Isn't quantum foam mass called "the worst theoretical prediction in the history of physics" wrong by 100 orders of magnitude? How did they avoid the "Vacuum Catastrophe" ?

You are referring to zero point energy.

Nov 23, 2015
Introspection- necessity-demand- In-adequacy of perception-
curiosity-sustain : spirit of advancement
cosmology needs Nature and Science in philosophy with an index.
Space-Time-Energy concepts need orientation towards heart and Center of the Universe
Knowledge Base -creative Spirit- Origins provide cosmic function of the Universe.
My books with projections may help in time.
http://archive.or...osmology
http://www.lulu.c...039.html

Nov 23, 2015
@my2cts
The experiments that wiki article references only disprove 2 of the possible models for 'space foam', not all of them (see reference 9, specifically).

I do wonder, however, about this articles' assertion that "Any mass, no matter how small, is predicted to warp space-time." How can they be sure? Wouldn't that require a complete understanding of quantum gravity first?

Nov 23, 2015
@ slash
"Wouldn't that require a complete understanding of quantum gravity first?"
You are absolutely right, it would require that.

Nov 26, 2015
Am I really the only one here with knowledge of optics ?

If I compare you to myself, then yes, you are the only one. So, I thought I'd ask you a question about this kind of thing. If, for some reason, there is a limit to the distance we can see into the universe, does the possibility exist of being able to measure warps in space right at the edge of visibility? Could space warp in a way, either through gravitational waves or something else, that would bring the objects in and out of visibility? This question is probably Super Thunder Dumb, but I'm trying to raise the level of discourse at least a little.

Your question is if a geometry is conceivable with GRT in which not all points are connected by a geodesic. I think that is not possible, but I am not an expert in GRT.

Nov 26, 2015
The study's premise is flawed. Virtual particles have no proper mass since they borrow their energy (or energy/mass if you prefer, depending on the type of virtual particle) from their local space-time. Their temporary energy/mass contribution to local space-time is exactly equal to the energy given up by local space-time in their creation. The result is that the local space-time actually remains perfectly "flat". Otherwise you'd be violating conservation of energy. Now if the authors wanted to argue that there was a vanishingly small chance that over billions of light years light might interact with virtual particle to produce a degraded image, that I might buy.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more